This is the second article in a two-part series on sleep apnea. You may find it helpful to read the first article, Symptoms And Health Effects Of Sleep Apnea, which will help you get a better understanding of some of the symptoms people may have that are indicative of sleep apnea, but aren’t the most common signs. Sometimes people have the less common indications, making it less likely for them (or their doctors!) to diagnose the disorder.
If you have been diagnosed with sleep apnea or think you might have it, don’t worry. I know it sounds scary to think that you actually stop breathing while you are sleeping, but there are a variety of treatment options you can try – many of which you can try on your own.
Self-help treatment for sleep apnea
If you have mild to moderate sleep apnea symptoms, consult with your doctor and then try some of these lifestyle changes. You might be able to alleviate symptoms just by trying a few things at home.
Lose weight – Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat relax, causing your airway to narrow and close as you breathe in. Even a small reduction of excess weight can help relieve that throat constriction, and some people have found their sleep apnea completely cured once they return to a healthy weight.
Quit smoking – Aside from the many, many other reasons to quit smoking, it can also help your sleep apnea. Some studies have shown that smoking increases inflammation and fluid retention in your throat, which can make your airway narrower and contribute to sleep apnea.
Avoid alcohol and other sedatives – Alcohol and any medications that relax you such as sedatives or sleeping pills cause your muscles to relax more completely than normal. As you can imagine, this contributes to the relaxation of the muscles in the back of your throat, and it makes it more likely your airway will become constricted.
Sleep on your side – If you can sleep on your side instead of your back or your abdomen, you can keep your tongue and soft palette from resting against the back of your throat, which can block your airway. Some people have had success “training” themselves to sleep on their sides by sewing a tennis ball into the back of their pajama top or even putting tennis balls in pillowcases and placing them strategically on their bed.
Exercises to treat sleep apnea
Rather than treating the symptoms or finding a work-around for your sleep apnea, you can also work to strengthen your throat muscles, which will make them less “floppy” when they are relaxed while you sleep. These exercises, from www.helpguide.org are a good place to start:
- Press length of tongue to roof of mouth and hold for 3 minutes a day.
- Place finger into one side of mouth. Hold finger against cheek while pulling cheek muscle in at same time. Repeat 10 times then rest and alternate sides. Repeat sequence 3 times.
- Purse lips as if to kiss. Hold lips tightly together and move them up and to the right the up and to the left 10 times. Repeat sequence 3 times.
- Place lips on a balloon. Take a deep breath through your nose then blow out through your mouth to inflate balloon as much as possible. Repeat 5 times.
Medical treatment for sleep apnea
If lifestyle changes don’t help alleviate your sleep apnea symptoms, a sleep doctor can help you find an effective treatment. Sometimes the underlying problem causing the apnea can be treated, such as in cases of heart or neuromuscular disorders. Usually, though, a breathing device will be prescribed. There are a few different types of breathing devices:
CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machines generate an airstream at a constant pressure. These are the most commonly used machines for treating sleep apnea. They are very effective, but many people find them to be too bulky and bothersome. Newer models of CPAP machines have been developed more recently that reduce pressure and increase comfort, so if you have preconceived notions about annoying, cumbersome CPAP machines, they are definitely worth a second look.
VPAP (Variable Positive Airway Pressure) and APAP (Automatic Positive Airway Pressure) machines work better for some people. The VPAP (also known as bi-level or BiPAP) works better for people who are sensitive to the constant pressure of the CPAP, and the APAP is the newest of the three that reduces discomfort considerably because it only increases pressure when the user is having trouble breathing, as opposed to the constant pressure you’ll get from a CPAP.
There are no approved drugs available for the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea, but even if the self-help methods and the breathing machines don’t work for you, there are always more alternatives. Some are more drastic, like surgery, and others are much simpler, like re-training your throat muscles through yoga breathing techniques.
If you are having sleeping or sleepiness problems (or even other issues like depression or memory loss) and suspect sleep apnea, I hope this gave you a better understanding of the options available to you. Don’t panic at the thought that you stop breathing while you sleep, and don’t let the thought of bulky, annoying breathing machines keep you from getting the help you need. There are so many options, and I’m sure you and your doctor can find just the right one that suits your needs.