Learn more about sleep apnea treatment

You’ve undergone an overnight sleep study and been told you have sleep apnea. Now it’s time to find a sleep apnea treatment that you feel comfortable with to help you – and your significant other – get a good night’s sleep.

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea. It happens when your airways are blocked, usually when the muscles in the tongue and throat relax while sleeping or because of large tonsils or adenoids. Sleep apnea can range from mild to severe.

It’s important to treat the disorder because it can increase your risk of:

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

The most common symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • Loud snoring.
  • Episodes of stopped breathing during sleep.
  • Gasping for air during sleep.
  • Waking up with a dry mouth.
  • Morning headache.
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep (insomnia).
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia).
  • Difficulty paying attention while awake.
  • Irritability.

Common Risk Factors

More men than women have sleep apnea. Factors that increase your risk of sleep apnea include:

  • Age.
  • Excess weight — Obesity greatly increases the risk of sleep apnea.
  • Neck circumference — People with thicker necks may have narrower airways.
  • Use of alcohol, sedatives or tranquilizers.
  • A narrow airway.
  • Having a family history of apnea.
  • Smoking.

Sleep Apnea Treatment Options

Sometimes lifestyle changes can be enough to treat mild sleep apnea. These adjustments include:

  • Losing weight.
  • Sleeping on your side
  • Avoiding alcohol or sedatives before bed.

If that doesn’t work, treatment options range from simple devices you wear in your mouth at night to machines or surgery.

Sleep apnea machines

Your doctor will most likely recommend a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. The CPAP is a machine that helps you breathe while you sleep.

The machine uses a mask to cover your nose or your nose and mouth, depending on the style that’s most comfortable for you. It may take some time to get used to the machine, but CPAP is effective and one of the best nonsurgical ways to treat sleep apnea.

As an alternative to CPAP, the BPAP, or bilevel positive airway pressure, machine uses a lower air pressure when you breathe out than when you breathe in. Some people find this method more comfortable.

Sleep apnea devices

For mild or moderate sleep apnea, you may be able to use over-the-counter nasal dilators — strips that keep your nostrils open while you sleep — or oral devices. The oral devices are mouthpieces fitted by a dentist that keep your airway open by positioning your tongue and jaw during sleep.

Sleep apnea surgery

Surgery for sleep apnea is usually not recommended as the first treatment option unless there is a blockage that can easily be removed. If you have enlarged tonsils or adenoids, your doctor may recommend that you have them removed. Enlarged tonsils and adenoids are the most common cause of sleep apnea in children and surgery to remove them is usually the best cure.

In adults, a procedure called uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP) is the most common surgery. It usually is recommended only if there is an obvious blockage or when other treatment options have failed.

During the surgery, a doctor will remove any excess tissue in the throat, tonsils, adenoids, uvula, or roof of the mouth. You may still need to use CPAP after the surgery.

Inspire therapy for sleep apnea

For people who can’t or won’t use CPAP, a new therapy may offer another option for moderate to severe sleep apnea. Inspire is an implanted device that monitors your breathing. When your breathing is constricted or stops, the sensors stimulate the airway muscles with a mild electric current. The system is is turned on at night and off in the morning using a remote control.

Your doctor will work with you to understand the cause and severity of your sleep apnea and help you find the best treatment that works within your lifestyle.

To learn more about your options for treating sleep apnea, visit the UPMC Sleep Medicine Center website.

Editor's Note: This gallery was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .