CPAP machines are the most commonly prescribed treatment for sleep apnea, and have been in use since the 1980s. CPAP machines, which stands for continuous positive airway pressure machines, work by pushing a steady stream of pressurized air through the nostrils, opening up the muscles that improperly relax in people with sleep apnea.
The machine takes in air through a filter, often passing it through a heated humidifier so that it’s easier on the nose and throat. It then uses a built-in motor to push the filtered, humidified air through a tube attached to the machine. At the end of the tube is a mask that is worn over the nose and affixed to the head with straps.
When the mask is placed over the nose, the steady stream of air goes into the upper airway, essentially creating a cushion or air splint that prevents the throat muscles and tissues from relaxing and collapsing the airway. The continuous airflow also helps keep the soft palate, the uvula, and the tongue from blocking the airway. This helps prevent the pauses in breathing that cause many sleep apnea sufferers to wake up throughout the night.
For people with mild to moderate sleep apnea, particularly OSA, the CPAP can have immediate benefits. Studies have shown that CPAP machines can be effective for many people in reducing or eliminating the risk of both short-term symptoms and long-term health complications.
That said, there are several factors that may impede someone’s ability to benefit from a CPAP machine. Since the air continues to flow in a steady stream, it can cause an uncomfortable choking feeling when users try to exhale. If this happens, the machine can be set to a lower pressure.
Additionally, some users find it hard to get comfortable enough to fall asleep or stay asleep while wearing the mask. In many cases, this is because the mask has not been sized or adjusted to fit them properly. This can cause discomfort, in addition to air leaks, which may decrease the machine’s overall effectiveness. An improperly fitting CPAP mask can cause other complications, such as irritation and pressure sores where the mask is rubbing against the skin.