Treatments and drugs

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Lifestyle changes

For milder cases of obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes:

  • Lose weight if you're overweight.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Drink alcohol moderately, if at all, and don't drink several hours before bedtime.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Use a nasal decongestant.
  • Don't sleep on your back.

If these measures don't improve your sleep or if your apnea is moderate to severe, then your doctor may recommend other treatments. Certain devices can help open up a blocked airway. In other cases, surgery may be necessary.

Therapies

  • Positive airway pressure. If you have obstructive sleep apnea, you may benefit from positive airway pressure. In this treatment, a machine delivers air pressure through a piece that fits into the nose or is placed over the nose and mouth while you sleep.

    Positive airway pressure reduces the number of respiratory events that occur as you sleep, reduces daytime sleepiness and improves your quality of life.

    The most common type is called continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP (SEE-pap). With this treatment, the pressure of the air breathed is continuous, constant and somewhat greater than that of the surrounding air, which is just enough to keep your upper airway passages open. This air pressure prevents obstructive sleep apnea and snoring.

    Although CPAP is the most consistently successful and most commonly used method of treating obstructive sleep apnea, some people find the mask cumbersome, uncomfortable or loud. However, newer machines are smaller and less noisy than older machines.

    Also, with some practice, most people learn to adjust the mask to obtain a comfortable and secure fit. You may need to try different types to find a suitable mask. Several options are available, such as nasal masks, nasal pillows or face masks.

    If you're having particular difficulties tolerating pressure, some machines have special adaptive pressure functions to improve comfort. You also may benefit from using a humidifier along with your CPAP system.

    CPAP may be given at a continuous (fixed) pressure or varied (autotitrating) pressure. In fixed CPAP, the pressure stays constant. In autotitrating CPAP, the levels of pressure are adjusted if the device senses increased airway resistance.

    Bilevel positive airway pressure (BPAP), another type of positive airway pressure, delivers a preset amount of pressure when you breathe in and a different amount of pressure when you breathe out.

    CPAP is more commonly used because it's been well studied for obstructive sleep apnea and has been shown to effectively treat obstructive sleep apnea. However, for people who have difficulty tolerating fixed CPAP, BPAP or autotitrating CPAP may be worth a try.

    Don't stop using your positive airway pressure machine if you have problems. Check with your doctor to see what adjustments you can make to improve its comfort. In addition, contact your doctor if you still snore despite treatment, if you begin snoring again or if your weight changes.

  • Mouthpiece (oral device). Though positive airway pressure is often an effective treatment, oral appliances are an alternative for some people with mild or moderate obstructive sleep apnea. These devices may reduce your sleepiness and improve your quality of life.

    These devices are designed to keep your throat open. Some devices keep your airway open by bringing your jaw forward, which can sometimes relieve snoring and obstructive sleep apnea. Other devices hold your tongue in a different position.

    If you and your doctor decide to explore this option, you'll need to see a dentist experienced in dental sleep medicine appliances for the fitting and follow-up therapy.

    A number of devices are available. Close follow-up is needed to ensure successful treatment.

  • Medications. If you continue to experience daytime sleepiness after treatment for your obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor may prescribe medications to reduce sleepiness.

Surgery or other procedures

The goal of surgery for obstructive sleep apnea is to prevent blockage of the upper airway during sleep. Surgery is usually considered only if other therapies haven't been effective or haven't been appropriate options for you. Surgical options may include:

  • Surgical removal of tissue. Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP) is a procedure in which your doctor removes tissue from the back of your mouth and top of your throat. Your tonsils and adenoids are commonly removed as well.

    UPPP usually is performed in a hospital and requires a general anesthetic.

    Doctors sometimes remove tissue from the back of the throat with a laser (laser-assisted uvulopalatoplasty) or with radiofrequency energy (radiofrequency ablation) to treat snoring. These procedures don't treat obstructive sleep apnea, but they may reduce snoring.

  • Jaw surgery. In this procedure, called maxillomandibular advancement, the upper and lower parts of your jaw are moved forward from the rest of your facial bones. This enlarges the space behind the tongue and soft palate, making obstruction less likely.

    This procedure often requires an oral surgeon and possibly an orthodontist. Complications could include numbness of the mouth, bleeding, infection, removal of hardware or temporomandibular joint problems.

  • Surgical opening in the neck. You may need this form of surgery if other treatments have failed and you have severe, life-threatening obstructive sleep apnea.

    In this procedure, called a tracheostomy, your surgeon makes an opening in your neck and inserts a metal or plastic tube through which you breathe. Air passes in and out of your lungs, bypassing the blocked air passage in your throat.

  • Implants. The Pillar procedure is a minimally invasive treatment that involves placement of three tiny polyester rods in the soft palate. These inserts stiffen and support the tissue of the soft palate and reduce upper airway collapse and snoring. This treatment is recommended only for people with mild obstructive sleep apnea.

Other types of surgery may help reduce snoring and sleep apnea by clearing or enlarging air passages, including:

  • Nasal surgery to remove polyps or straighten a crooked partition between your nostrils (deviated nasal septum)
  • Surgery to remove enlarged tonsils or adenoids
Jun. 15, 2013