Can Sleep Apnea Be Cured?

sleep apnea test study device on someone while they sleep

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What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that can cause you to stop breathing for 10 to 30 seconds while sleeping. This can occur up to 400 times per night.

This condition is typically characterized by loud snoring or choking, or gasping sounds in your sleep, which can cause you to wake up multiple times in the night and feel tired during the day.

It is estimated that anywhere between 5% to 10% of people worldwide live with some form of this condition.

While sleep apnea cannot be cured, it can be managed with lifestyle changes and treatment options.

This article discusses sleep apnea treatment options, including lifestyle changes, breathing devices, oral appliances, medication, and surgery. This article also explores sleep apnea's impact on mental health and offers suggestions for handling the emotions that you may experience upon learning that you have an incurable health condition.

Sleep Apnea Treatment

Seeking treatment for sleep apnea is important because if left untreated, it can be life-threatening.

Sleep apnea is linked to an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and a reduced life span. It can cause severe daytime sleepiness, which can increase your risk of falling asleep while driving or using heavy machinery, both of which could be fatal.

Treatment for sleep apnea can vary depending on the type of sleep apnea you have, the severity of your symptoms, and whether you have any other health conditions.

How Sleep Apnea Is Treated

These are some of the treatment options your healthcare provider may prescribe:

  • Lifestyle changes
  • Medication
  • Breathing devices
  • Oral Appliances
  • Surgery

Read on for a discussion of each treatment option.

Lifestyle Changes

Most treatment regimens for sleep apnea begin conservatively, with lifestyle changes such as:

  • Losing weight: For people who are overweight or obese, research shows that a 10% reduction in body weight can significantly improve sleep apnea symptoms.
  • Sleeping on your side: Sleeping on your back can aggravate sleep apnea because your soft tissue may press against your windpipe and block airflow. Therefore, if you have sleep apnea, it’s better to sleep on your side instead of on your back. You can use special support pillows or sleep aids to help you be more comfortable in this position.
  • Avoiding alcohol: Your healthcare provider may recommend limiting your alcohol consumption or avoiding it altogether because alcohol relaxes the muscles in the back of your throat, which can make it harder for you to breathe while you’re sleeping.
  • Quitting smoking: Smoking affects sleep quality, causes inflation in your airways, and induces snoring, all of which serve to aggravate the symptoms of sleep apnea.
  • Treating other health conditions: Treatment for sleep apnea may also mean treating any other underlying conditions contributing to it. For instance, treating heart failure is important if you also have central sleep apnea.

Medications

Treating sleep apnea may involve taking certain medications and avoiding others:

  • Use nasal sprays to ease breathing: Using nasal sprays, or adhesive strips can make it easier for air to flow through your airways and improve your ability to breathe. This can help reduce snoring and improve your symptoms if you have mild sleep apnea.
  • Avoid opioid painkillers: If you’re taking opioid painkillers, your healthcare provider may recommend that you gradually stop taking them, as opioid use can lead to sleep apnea. Stopping the medication may help eliminate your sleep apnea or improve it significantly.
  • Avoid sedatives and muscle relaxants: Sleeping pills and muscle relaxants relax your central nervous system, making it harder for you to breathe while you’re sleeping, so your healthcare provider may recommend that you avoid taking them.

Additionally, medications like hypnotic drugs and respiratory-stimulating drugs can help with sleep apnea; however, these medications have not been conclusively accepted or formally approved for treating this condition.

Breathing Devices

Breathing devices, known as positive airway pressure (PAP) machines, are the gold standard of treatment for sleep apnea.

While there are different types of PAP machines, the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine is the most common.

How a CPAP Machine May Help You

The CPAP machine is a special mask that you wear over your nose, and sometimes your mouth too, while you sleep. The mask is attached to a tube and a machine that blows pressurized air into your airways, which helps ensure that they stay open while you sleep.

Wearing a breathing device such as a CPAP machine while sleeping can take some time to get used to and you may experience side effects such as congestion, runny nose, dry eyes, dry mouth, and nosebleeds. Report any side effects to your healthcare provider and ask them how to proceed.

Other types of breathing devices that help treat sleep apnea include the auto-adjusting positive airway pressure (APAP) machine, the bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP) machine, and the adaptive servo-ventilation (ASV) machine.

Oral Appliances

If you are unable to use a breathing device such as a PAP machine, your healthcare provider may recommend that you wear an oral appliance in your mouth instead, to help keep your airways open:

  • Mandibular repositioning mouthpieces: These appliances are to be worn at night. They cover your upper and lower teeth and hold your jaw in position so it doesn’t block your upper airways.
  • Tongue retaining devices: Also intended to be worn at night, these appliances hold your tongue forward, so that it doesn’t slide backward and block your upper airways.
  • Electrical stimulation devices: The FDA has also approved an oral electrical stimulation device for treating sleep apnea. You have to wear the device in your mouth for 20 minutes per day while you’re awake, for six weeks. It stimulates your tongue muscle with electrical pulses and helps ensure that it doesn’t collapse backward and block your airways while you sleep.

You will need to visit a dentist, who will custom make the oral appliance to your measurements and teach you how to use it.

Surgery

If other treatment options aren’t helping you, your healthcare provider may recommend surgical options, which can include:

  • Adenotonsillectomy: Often recommended for children diagnosed with sleep apnea, this surgery involves removing the tonsils (tonsillectomy) and adenoids (adenoidectomy). It widens the passage where the mouth, throat, and nasal passages connect, making it easier for air to pass through.
  • Somnoplasty: This surgery reduces soft tissue in the upper parts of the windpipe, using radiofrequency, to improve airflow.
  • Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty: This surgery involves removing your uvula (the little piece of tissue hanging at the back of your mouth) and soft tissue from your pharynx and soft palate. This also helps widen the part where your throat meets your mouth to improve airflow.
  • Jaw surgery: If your sleep apnea is caused by structural issues such as micrognathia (undersized jaw), you may need surgery that shifts your maxilla (upper jaw) or your mandible (lower jaw) forward, so it doesn’t press against your airways.
  • Nasal surgery: A nasal surgery such as a septoplasty can help straighten the soft tissue in your nose so you can breathe more freely.
  • Implant surgery: Your healthcare provider may surgically insert an implant that monitors your breathing patterns and controls the muscles that ensure your airways remain open while you’re asleep.

How Sleep Apnea Can Affect Your Mental Health

You’ve probably noticed that not getting enough sleep can leave you feeling tired, irritable, and stressed. Sleep deprivation can also affect your ability to function by harming your attention, alertness, memory, learning, and cognitive abilities.

Over time, a sleep disorder like sleep apnea can affect your mental health in many ways. A 2018 study notes that sleep apnea is linked to a greater risk of mental health conditions such as:

How to Cope With a Sleep Apnea Diagnosis

Learning that you have a serious health condition like sleep apnea that doesn’t have a cure and will require medical interventions and considerable lifestyle changes can be distressing. 

These are some steps you can take to cope with the diagnosis:

  • Don’t avoid your emotions: You’re likely to experience a range of emotions, such as denial, anger, grief, sadness, fear, and confusion upon receiving the diagnosis. Allow yourself to feel all the emotions you’re experiencing rather than trying to avoid them. Give yourself the time and space you need to process your reactions.
  • Educate yourself about the condition: It can be helpful to educate yourself about the condition to better understand what you’re experiencing and why. Do your research and ask your healthcare provider if you have any questions.
  • Build a support system: Inform loved ones about your diagnosis and let them know how they can help you. Take a trusted friend or family member along with you to your doctor’s appointments if needed. Ask someone you live with to keep an eye on you at night.
  • Visit a mental healthcare professional: If you’re struggling to cope with the diagnosis, it may be helpful to visit a healthcare professional who can help you examine your feelings, challenge unhelpful thought processes, and develop coping skills.
  • Join a support group: A support group of people who have sleep apnea or other sleep disorders can be a source of advice, resources, inspiration, and a shared sense of understanding.

A Word From Verywell

While sleep apnea cannot be permanently cured, it can be managed with lifestyle changes and treatment options. If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with this condition, it’s important that you take steps to treat it, because it can be dangerous if left untreated. 

Your treatment plan will vary depending on your symptoms, the type of sleep apnea you have, and any other health conditions you live with, and you may have to work closely with multiple healthcare providers, such as a sleep specialist, cardiologist, neurologist, dentist, nutritionist, and physical therapist, for treatment.

Upon commencing treatment, some people start to feel better almost immediately, whereas for some it can take three to six months of consistent treatment to start seeing improvement. During this time, it's also important that you take care of your mental health and well-being.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.