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Current Treatments

Sleep apnea can be treated successfully in a variety of ways, depending on the severity of the condition and the cause of the patient's apnea episodes.

In mild cases, simple measures such as sleeping on the side instead of the back, propping up with pillows, and avoiding alcohol and sleeping pills (which relax the muscles in the throat, making the condition worse) may be all that's needed. Since the root cause of sleep apnea in many people is being overweight, losing weight—even as little as 10 percent of body weight—can help alleviate the condition. Dental appliances fitted by a dentist or orthodontist have also helped some people by repositioning the lower jaw and tongue to help keep the airway open. More information is available from the Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine.

But many cases of sleep apnea require more extensive treatment. The standard treatment for most cases of obstructive sleep apnea is nasal continuous positive airway pressure, or nasal CPAP. In this therapy, patients use a medical device consisting of an air blower connected by a tube to a face mask. Patients wear the mask while sleeping, and the air blower forces air into the nasal passages to keep the airway open during sleep. The pressure is adjusted carefully, so that it is just enough to keep the airway from collapsing.

While your doctor will prescribe the therapy, most often you will be trained in its use by a respiratory therapist, who will help you get used to the device and make adjustments in the face mask and airway pressure aimed at making it as comfortable as possible. CPAP does require effort on the part of the patient, but when used successfully, it can effectively treat sleep apnea and reduce the risk of complications such as high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.

Surgical procedures are also available to treat sleep apnea. In some cases, doctors will advise removing tonsils, adenoids, nasal polyps, or other growths blocking the airway. This is especially true in children. In other cases, patients may require surgery to correct structural deformities, such as a deviated septum. And in still others, surgery may be performed to remove excess tissue in the back of the throat. This procedure, known as uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, or UPPP, is successful in about 30 percent to 60 percent of patients. A similar procedure which uses a laser to remove tissue —the laser-assisted uvulopalatoplasty, or LAUP—can help with snoring but has not been shown to be effective in eliminating sleep apnea itself. A third surgical technique that uses radio waves to treat blockages in the airway, the somnoplasty, has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration but is still considered experimental and is generally not covered by insurance.

The treatment of last resort for severe, life-threatening sleep apnea is a tracheostomy. In this procedure, a small hole is made in the throat and a tube is inserted into the hole. The tube remains covered during the day but is opened at night, bypassing the normal airway altogether and ensuring air can flow freely in and out of the lungs while the patient is asleep.

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© 2017 American Association for Respiratory Care