If you just found out you have sleep apnea, you may wonder what to do next. The first step is to talk to your doctor about the lifestyle changes and treatments you can use to manage it and improve your quality of life. You may be surprised what a difference the right tools can make in your life.
“Sleep apnea is treatable,” says Kannan Ramar, MD, a sleep medicine specialist in Rochester, MN, and former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “Many of the damaging effects of sleep apnea can be stopped, and even reversed, through diagnosis and treatment.”
If you stick with your treatment, Ramar says, you’ll have less daytime sleepiness. You’ll also lower your risk of more serious effects of sleep apnea, like heart attack, stroke, and things like motor vehicle accidents due to fatigue.
What You Can Expect
Lifestyle changes and treatments like continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), oral appliance therapy, positional therapy, and weight loss may make big improvements in your quality of life.
Here are some changes you can expect when you start treating your sleep apnea:
Better sleep. “Treatment can restore your regular sleep pattern and increase your total sleep time by eliminating breathing pauses in your sleep,” Ramar says. “This will help you wake up feeling more refreshed and boost your energy throughout the day.”
More productivity. “Using CPAP may improve your ability to think, concentrate, and make decisions,” Ramar says. He points out that this can also improve your productivity and lessen the chances of making a costly mistake at work.
Improved quality of life. With better sleep comes more wellness. Ramar says treatment may improve your mood, lower your risk of depression, and improve your overall quality of life.
Treating Sleep Apnea
When you find out you have sleep apnea, your doctor will review your treatment options with you.
Your doctor may suggest lifestyle changes, devices that open up your blocked airway, or surgery. Your doctor will base their recommendations on how mild or severe your sleep apnea is. Together, you’ll decide what to try. “Your doctor will work with you to find the most comfortable option,” Ramar says.
Common treatments for sleep apnea include lifestyle changes and therapies prescribed by your doctor.
If you have mild sleep apnea, it’s possible that lifestyle changes may be all you need to manage the condition. These changes may make a big difference:
Lose weight. Carrying extra weight puts pressure on your throat, which leads to airway constriction. Just a 10% reduction in body weight can lessen the severity of your sleep apnea by 30%.
Exercise. Working out can ease symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea. Your doctor may recommend regular exercise, like brisk walking, on most days.
Avoid smoking, alcohol, and certain medications. Your doctor may recommend that you stay away from things that constrict your throat and get in the way of your breathing. These can include smoking, alcohol, sleeping pills, and other medications.
Change your sleep position. If you sleep on your back, your tongue and soft palate lie against the back of your throat. This blocks your airway. It may help to sleep on your side or stomach. Try wedging a pillow behind your back or use a tennis ball or other device to alert you when you turn over in your sleep.
Devices and Therapies
If you have moderate or severe sleep apnea, your doctor may recommend devices or treatments that open up your blocked airway. Common therapies include:
Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). This is a machine that gently delivers air pressure while you sleep. It gently blows air through a mask you wear over your nose and mouth to stop your upper airway tissues from collapsing as you sleep.
It may feel uncomfortable at first, but in time, you’ll learn how to adjust the tension so it’s comfortable and secure. Your doctor can help you manage your CPAP.
Other positive airway pressure devices are similar to a CPAP, but automatically adjust the pressure as you asleep. They include auto-CPAPs and bilevel positive airway pressure, or BPAP devices.
Other devices and appliances. Your doctor may suggest that you try one of these other devices or appliances.
- An adaptive servo-ventilation (ASV) device, which uses a computer to analyze your breathing and then normalizes it through an airflow machine
- A device to deliver extra oxygen to your lungs while you sleep
- A hypoglossal nerve stimulator, which is implanted under your skin. It stimulates your hypoglossal nerve to move your tongue forward and open up your airway
- An oral (mouth) appliance to keep your throat open
If lifestyle changes and therapies like CPAP don’t work, or if you have a jaw structure problem, your doctor may recommend surgery.
Surgery for sleep apnea may include:
You have many options for treating sleep apnea. If one isn’t the right fit, your doctor will help you find another that may work better.
For more support, talk to your primary care provider. You can find a sleep provider through an AASM-accredited sleep center. To find an accredited sleep center, visit sleepeducation.org/find-a-facility.
Remember, you have many tools and resources to improve your quality of life. “Sleep apnea is a condition that we can work together to treat,” Ramar says.