There are a variety of treatments for obstructive sleep apnea, depending on an individual’s medical history, the severity of the disorder and, most importantly, the specific cause of the obstruction.
In acute infectious mononucleosis, for example, although the airway may be severely obstructed in the first 2 weeks of the illness, the presence of lymphoid tissue (suddenly enlarged tonsils and adenoids) blocking the throat is usually only temporary. A course of anti-inflammatory steroids such as prednisone (or another kind of glucocorticoid drug) is often given to reduce this lymphoid tissue. Although the effects of the steroids are short term, in most affected individuals, the tonsillar and adenoidal enlargement are also short term, and will be reduced on its own by the time a brief course of steroids is completed. In unusual cases where the enlarged lymphoid tissue persists after resolution of the acute stage of the Epstein-Barr infection, or in which medical treatment with anti-inflammatory steroids does not adequately relieve breathing, tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy may be urgently required.
Obstructive sleep apnea in children is sometimes due to chronically enlarged tonsils and adenoids. Tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy is curative. The operation may be far from trivial, especially in the worst apnea cases, in which growth is retarded and abnormalities of the right heart may have developed. Even in these extreme cases, the surgery tends to cure not only the apnea and upper airway obstruction, but allows normal subsequent growth and development. Once the high end-expiratory pressures are relieved, the cardiovascular complications reverse themselves. The postoperative period in these children requires special precautions.
The treatment for obstructive sleep apnea in adults with poor oropharyngeal airways secondary to heavy upper body type is varied. Unfortunately, in this most common type of obstructive sleep apnea, unlike some of the cases discussed above, reliable cures are not the rule.
Some treatments involve lifestyle changes, such as avoiding alcohol and medications that relax the central nervous system (for example, sedatives and muscle relaxants), losing weight, and quitting smoking. Some people are helped by special pillows or devices that keep them from sleeping on their backs, or oral appliances to keep the airway open during sleep. For those cases where these conservative methods are inadequate, doctors can recommend continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), in which a face mask is attached to a tube and a machine that blows pressurized air into the mask and through the airway to keep it open. There are also surgical procedures intended to remove and tighten tissue and widen the airway, but none are reproducibly successful. Some individuals may need a combination of therapies to successfully treat their sleep apnea.
The most widely used current therapeutic intervention is ''positive airway pressure'' whereby a breathing machine pumps a controlled stream of air through a mask worn over the nose, mouth, or both. The additional pressure splints or holds open the relaxed muscles, just as air in a balloon inflates it. There are several variants:
- (CPAP), or ''continuous positive airway pressure'', in which a controlled air compressor generates an airstream at a constant pressure. This pressure is prescribed by the patient's physician, based on an overnight test or titration. Newer CPAP models are available which slightly reduce pressure upon exhalation to increase patient comfort and compliance. CPAP is the most common treatment for obstructive sleep apnea.
- (VPAP), or ''variable positive airway pressure'', also known as bilevel or BiPAP, uses an electronic circuit to monitor the patient's breathing, and provides two different pressures, a higher one during inhalation and a lower pressure during exhalation. This system is more expensive, and is sometimes used with patients who have other coexisting respiratory problems and/or who find breathing out against an increased pressure to be uncomfortable or disruptive to their sleep.
- (APAP), or ''automatic positive airway pressure'', is the newest form of such treatment. An APAP machine incorporates pressure sensors and a computer which continuously monitors the patient's breathing performance. It adjusts pressure continuously, increasing it when the user is attempting to breathe but cannot, and decreasing it when the pressure is higher than necessary. Although FDA approved, these devices are still considered experimental by many, and are not covered by most insurance plans.
A second type of physical intervention, a Mandibular advancement splint (MAS), is sometimes prescribed for mild or moderate sleep apnea sufferers. The device is a mouthguard similar to those used in sports to protect the teeth. For apnea patients, it is designed to hold the lower jaw slightly down and forward relative to the natural, relaxed position. This position holds the tongue farther away from the back of the airway, and may be enough to relieve apnea or improve breathing for some patients.
The FDA accepts only 16 oral appliances for the treatment of sleep apnea. A listing is available at its [http://www.fda.gov/cdrh] website.
Oral appliance therapy is less effective than CPAP, but is more 'user friendly'. Side-effects are common, but rarely is the patient aware of them.
There are no effective drug-based treatments for obstructive sleep apnea that have FDA approval. However, a clinical trial of mirtazapine, has shown early promise at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This small, early study found a 50% decrease in occurrence of apnea episodes and 28% decrease in sleep disruptions in 100% of patients (twelve patients) taking them. Nonetheless, due to the risk of weight gain and sedation (two risk factors and consequences of sleep apnea) it is not recommended. An effort to improve the effects of mirtazapine by combining it with another existing medication was cancelled during Phase IIa trials in 2006. Dr. David Carley and Dr. Miodrag Radulovacki, the sleep researchers who were behind the initial clinical trial of mirtazapine are now working on a new treatment that consists of two other existing medications taken off-label together for treatment of sleep apnea.
Other serotonin effecting agents that have been explored unsuccessfully as a treatment for apnea include prozac, tryptophan and protriptyline.
Oral administration of the methylxanthine theophylline (chemically similar to caffeine) can reduce the number of episodes of apnea, but can also produce side effects such as heart palpitations and insomnia. Theophylline is generally ineffective in adults with OSA, but is sometimes used to treat central sleep apnea (see below), and infants and children with apnea.
When other treatments do not completely treat the OSA, drugs are sometimes prescribed to treat a patient's daytime sleepiness or somnolence. These range from stimulants such as amphetamines to modern anti-narcoleptic medicines. The anti-narcoleptic medicine modafinil is seeing increased use in this role .
In most cases, weight loss will reduce the number and severity of apnea episodes. In the morbidly obese, a major loss of weight (such as what occurs after bariatric surgery) can sometimes cure the condition.
Some researchers believe that OSA is at root a neurological condition, in which nerves that control the tongue and soft palate fail to sufficiently stimulate those muscles, leading to over-relaxation and airway blockage. A few experiments and trial studies have explored the use of pacemakers and similar devices, programmed to detect breathing effort and deliver gentle electrical stimulation to the muscles of the tongue.
This is not a common mode of treatment for OSA patients as of 2004, but it is an active field of research.
A number of different surgeries are available to improve the size or tone of a patient's airway. For decades, tracheostomy was the only effective treatment for sleep apnea. It is used today only in rare, intractable cases that have withstood other attempts at treatment. Modern operations employ one or more of several options, tailored to each patient's needs. Long term success rates are low, resulting in most doctors favoring CPAP.
- Nasal surgery, including turbinectomy (removal or reduction of a nasal turbinate), or straightening of the nasal septum, in patients with nasal obstruction or congestion which reduces airway pressure and complicates OSA.
- Tonsillectomy and/or adenoidectomy in an attempt to increase the size of the airway.
- Removal or reduction of parts of the soft palate and some or all of the uvula, such as uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP) or laser-assisted uvulopalatoplasty (''LAUP''). Modern variants of this procedure sometimes use radiofrequency waves to heat and remove tissue.
- Reduction of the tongue base, either with laser excision or radiofrequency ablation.
- ''Genioglossus Advancement'', in which a small portion of the lower jaw that attaches to the tongue is moved forward, to pull the tongue away from the back of the airway.
- ''Hyoid Suspension'', in which the hyoid bone in the neck, another attachment point for tongue muscles, is pulled forward in front of the larynx.
- ''Maxillomandibular advancement'' (MMA). MMA is the most effective sleep apnea surgical procedure currently available. The success rate is usually between 75 and 100% with a long-term success approaching 90%. Although MMA is considered a fairly invasive procedure, the associated surgical risks are low, including bleeding, infection, malocclusion, and permanent numbness. In general, patient perceptions of surgical outcome have been very favorable.
The role of surgery in the treatment of sleep apnea has been questioned repeatedly as the long term success rate of the procedures has come into question. Surgery is generally only effective in obstructive sleep apnea where the obstruction can be effectively removed. The patient's age, weight and other factors may make them a bad candidate for surgery. Many sleep specialists still regard positive air pressure treatment as the gold standard.
Special situation: surgery and anesthesia in patients with sleep apnea
Many drugs and agents used during surgery to relieve pain and to depress consciousness remain in the body at low amounts for hours or even days afterwards. In an individual with either central, obstructive or mixed sleep apnea, these low doses may be enough to cause life-threatening irregularities in breathing.
Use of analgesics and sedatives in these patients postoperatively should therefore be minimized or avoided.
Surgery on the mouth and throat, as well as dental surgery and procedures, can result in postoperative swelling of the lining of the mouth and other areas that affect the airway. Even when the surgical procedure is designed to improve the airway, such as tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy or tongue reduction - swelling may negate some of the effects in the immediate postoperative period.
Individuals with sleep apnea generally require more intensive monitoring after surgery for these reasons.
The most common treatment is offered by speech therapists, strengthening the muscle tone and neural pathways involved in breathing.
Breathing exercises, such as those used in Yoga, the Buteyko method, or didgeridoo playing can be effective. There are muscles which act to tension and open the airway during each inspiration. Exercises can, in some cases, restore sufficient function to these muscles to prevent or reduce apnea.
Many people benefit from sleeping at a 30 degree elevation of the upper body or higher, as if in a recliner. Doing so helps prevent the gravitational collapse of the airway. Lateral positions (sleeping on a side), as opposed to supine positions (sleeping on the back), are also recommended as a treatment for sleep apnea, largely because the gravitational component is smaller than in the lateral position. A 30 degree elevation of the upper body can be achieved by sleeping in a recliner, an adjustable bed, or a bed wedge placed under the mattress. This approach can easily be used in combination with other treatments and may be particularly effective in very obese people.
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Last Updated: Feb 1, 2011