Obstructive Sleep Apnea Treatment Overview
First steps to consider
- If you have signs of obstructive sleep apnea, like snoring, waking up at night gasping for air or short of breath, or you’re often tired during the day, see a healthcare provider.
- Obstructive sleep apnea can often be treated with a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine to help you breathe while you’re sleeping.
- If you have mild sleep apnea, certain lifestyle changes, like losing weight and avoiding alcohol, may help treat your symptoms.
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When to see a healthcare provider
Always see a healthcare provider, either a primary care provider or sleep medicine doctor, if you have signs of obstructive sleep apnea. The main symptoms include snoring, waking up at night, gasping for air, feeling very tired during the day (even if you think you slept well), and waking up with a dry mouth or headache.
It’s important to treat sleep apnea because it can lead to serious complications, like high blood pressure, heart problems, liver problems, and type 2 diabetes. Also, being tired during the day can affect your mental health, and can make you less productive at work. And if you drive, being drowsy behind the wheel puts you at a higher risk of having a car accident.
- Your doctor may be able to make a diagnosis based on your symptoms and sleep history. But they’ll likely refer you to a sleep specialist for testing.
- The sleep specialist may want to do a sleep study, which measures how often you stop breathing during the night. Sleep tests can be performed at home or in a sleep clinic. If you go to a clinic, you will stay overnight. During a sleep study, you have sensors on you that measure functions while you sleep, like your breathing, blood oxygen levels, brainwave activity, and other key sleep metrics.
- You may be referred to other specialists who can detect underlying problems that may be causing your sleep apnea. These specialists may include a cardiologist (heart doctor), neurologist (nervous system doctor), or an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) doctor.
What to expect from your doctor visit
- Your healthcare provider will talk to you about making lifestyle changes, like weight loss, quitting smoking, and avoiding alcohol.
- If your sleep apnea doesn’t get better after making lifestyle changes, or if it’s moderate to severe, you may need a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. The machine blows air into your airway through a small mask while you sleep. You’ll use the CPAP machine whenever you sleep—every night and even for a nap.
If CPAP doesn’t work for you, other treatment options are available.
- A device that is similar to a mouth guard is custom fitted for your mouth. It helps move your jaw and tongue forward from their natural position, reducing blocked airways.
- Surgical procedures, like removing tissue from your nose, mouth, or tongue, or surgery to move the jaw forward, can help prevent airway obstruction.
- Upper airway stimulation therapy may be an option for some people. An electrical stimulator is implanted to help stimulate a nerve that moves your tongue forward, helping to open up the airway.
- Some people may need daytime medication to help with sleepiness. These are used in combination with other treatments for sleep apnea.
Prescription obstructive sleep apnea medications
- Modafinil (Provigil)
- Armodafinil (Nuvigil)
- Solriamfetol (Sunosi)
Types of obstructive sleep apnea providers
- A primary care provider can treat mild symptoms.
- A sleep specialist can do sleep studies to confirm a diagnosis of sleep apnea and treat the condition. This type of doctor has special training in diagnosing sleep-related disorders like obstructive sleep apnea.
- You may be referred to other types of specialists who can identify the cause of your sleep apnea, like a cardiologist (heart doctor), neurologist (nervous system doctor), or an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) doctor.
Managing obstructive sleep apnea at home
Always see a healthcare provider, either your primary care provider or sleep medicine doctor, to get a diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea. While it usually needs to be treated by a healthcare provider, there are a few lifestyle changes that may help.
- Try not to sleep on your back. Sleep on your side to help keep airways open.
- Limit alcohol, especially in the hours before you go to bed. Alcohol can make sleep apnea worse and increase sleepiness.
- Don’t take sedative medications like sleep medication or anti-anxiety drugs unless recommended by your doctor. They may worsen sleep apnea.
- Lose weight if necessary. Getting to a healthy weight can reduce some of the extra tissue around your airway area that can block your breathing.
- Quit smoking. Smoking may increase inflammation and water retention in your upper airway.
- Exercise regularly. Being active helps boost your energy and oxygen intake. It can also reduce your risk of sleep apnea complications like heart disease.