Treatment options

Proper treatment can help minimize—and even eliminate—the symptoms of sleep apnea. It can also reduce the high blood pressure and heart problems that often accompany sleep apnea and reduce your risk of stroke. The best treatment for you depends on your medical history, physical exam and PSG test.

Available treatments for obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • Lifestyle changes. If you have only mild sleep apnea, lifestyle changes might be all that are needed to correct the problem. Such changes include avoiding alcohol, smoking and medications that make you sleepy; losing weight if you are overweight; and sleeping on your side instead of your back.
  • CPAP. For moderate to severe apnea, specialized treatment is usually required in addition to lifestyle changes. The most common of these treatments is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), which involves wearing a mask during sleep. The mask is attached to a machine that blows air through the mask and into your throat. The air pressure is adjusted to maintain just enough pressure to keep your throat open. CPAP works only as long as you use the device and use it correctly. That's the problem. Many people find the device cumbersome, inconvenient or too noisy. CPAP also causes side effects in some people: dry or stuffy nose, irritation of facial skin, stomach bloating, sore eyes and headache. These side effects can be minimized or eliminated by using a nasal spray, adjusting the CPAP settings or the mask, and adding moisture to the forced air.
  • Mouthpiece. A custom-fitted mouthpiece is helpful for some people with mild to moderate sleep apnea. Made and fitted by a dentist or orthodontist, the mouthpiece repositions the lower jaw and tongue to help keep the throat open during sleep. Because the device can irritate or damage the teeth, gums or jaw, a dentist or orthodontist should check out any problems with the mouthpiece.
  • Pillar implant procedure. This involves inserting three support devices (pillars) into the soft palate (the soft tissue at the back of the roof of the mouth) to prevent it from sagging and obstructing the airway during sleep. The procedure works best for people with mild to moderate sleep apnea. The most common side effect is a temporary sore throat.
  • Surgery. Several types of surgery are used with varying degrees of success in the treatment of sleep apnea. In general, surgery is performed only on people who have severe apnea that has not responded to other treatments. The most common type of surgery involves removal of the uvula (the piece of tissue that hangs from the roof of the back of the mouth). In some cases, the tonsils and adenoids might be removed, too.

If you are diagnosed with central sleep apnea, treatment may include:

  • Resolving underlying conditions. Many conditions can cause or exacerbate central sleep apnea. For example, a form of central sleep apnea commonly occurs in people with congestive heart failure, so the goal would be to treat the heart failure itself. Also, use of narcotic pain medications may be causing your sleep apnea, so your doctor may need to adjust the dosage.
  • Positive airway pressure. Besides CPAP, your doctor may consider other devices to help regulate your breathing, including adaptive servo-ventilation (ASV) or bi-level positive airway pressure (BPAP). Supplemental oxygen may also be prescribed.
  • Medication. Some types of central sleep apnea are treated with drugs that stimulate breathing, such as acetazolamide (Diamox).

Managing your risk

Sleep apnea is a serious condition that requires prompt attention to avoid potentially life-threatening complications. So don't hesitate to contact your doctor if you have one or more of the symptoms of the condition. And take your treatment seriously. Making every effort to get your sleep apnea under control will most likely benefit your heart and your overall health in the long term.

Publication Review By: Lawrence Appel, M.D., and Rafael H. Llinas, M.D.

Published: 15 Jul 2013

Last Modified: 06 Oct 2015