If you have one or more of the symptoms of sleep apnea, the first step is to do a sleep apnea test called a sleep study. A sleep study is usually done in a sleep laboratory. During a sleep study, you would go to the sleep laboratory, and the technicians there will hook you up to a variety of sensors which will record your brain waves, blood oxygen level, heart rate, respiration, eye movements and leg movements all night while you sleep. In some cases, a less rigorous sleep study can be done at home. The home sleep study option can only diagnose obstructive sleep apnea.
If the sleep study determines that you have obstructive sleep apnea and/or central sleep apnea, then your doctor will discuss treatment options. For mild cases, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes such as losing weight or smoking cessation. If you have nasal allergies, taking allergy medication can help.
The most common sleep apnea treatment for moderate to severe cases of obstructive sleep apnea is the continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP machine. The CPAP machine consists of a machine that pumps air to your nose all night through a tube connected to a mask. The mask of the sleep apnea machine is strapped to your head to keep it in place while you sleep. While the CPAP machine can be cumbersome and uncomfortable at first, with continued use and adjusting the fit of the mask, most people get used to it.
In addition to the regular CPAP machine, there are other sleep apnea machines including the auto-CPAP which automatically adjusts the pressure while you are sleeping and a BIPAP machine, which produces more pressure when you inhale than when you exhale.
If you have mild sleep apnea or if, after trying the CPAP machine, you just cannot get used to sleeping with it, another option is using an oral appliance. This is a sleep apnea mouth guard that brings the jaw forward during sleep to open up the throat. While less effective than the CPAP machine, oral appliances are more comfortable. Your dentist can fit you for the sleep apnea mouth guard and ensure that the fit continues to work for you.
Central sleep apnea can be treated using other mechanical sleep apnea devices. One such device is the adaptive servo-ventilation or ASV. The ASV learns your normal breathing pattern and stores it in a built-in computer. After you fall asleep, the machine uses pressure to restore your normal breathing pattern and prevent pauses in your breathing. Supplemental oxygen can also be used for central sleep apnea.
Since central sleep apnea is often caused by other health problems, sometimes treating the underlying problem can resolve the sleep apnea as well.
If none of these devices or treatments work on your sleep apnea, you can try surgery. Various types of surgical intervention can be used to correct the conditions that cause sleep apnea. These include:
- Tissue removal from the back of your mouth and top of your throat
- For children, removal of the tonsils or adenoids
- Tissue shrinkage using radiofrequency ablation for mild to moderate sleep apnea
- Jaw repositioning, or maxillomandibular advancement to enlarge the space behind the tongue and soft palate
- Implants in the soft palate
For severe cases of life-threatening sleep apnea, some may need a tracheostomy, in which a tube is inserted into your throat for breathing.