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OSA Treatment Options

Apnea Treatments (1:11)

Lawrence Epstein, MD, of Harvard, discusses OSA treatment options.

Treatment for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) aims to restore normal breathing in sleep, ease wake-time symptoms, such as fatigue and sleepiness, and reduce the risk of experiencing medical disorders, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and impotence. Effective treatments exist. They include:

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). This is the gold standard treatment for moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea. It can reduce, and sometimes eliminate obstructive sleep apnea symptoms. CPAP involves wearing a mask over the nose, or over both nose and mouth in sleep. The CPAP device sends a constant, low-pressure stream of air to keep the airway open.

Weight loss. If you are overweight, losing extra pounds may reduce the severity of obstructive sleep apnea, or eliminate it altogether. Weight loss diminishes pressure on the airway in sleep, and benefits overall health, as well.

Sleep position. Some people experience sleep-disrupted breathing only when they sleep on their back. Place pillow bolsters on the side of your body, or attach objects to the back of pajamas, such as tennis ball in a sock, to help discourage back-sleeping. Commercial devices that discourage back-sleeping also exist. One, worn on the back of the neck, starts to vibrate when a person sleeps on his or her back, prompting the sleeper to shift position.

Oral appliances. These dental devices, worn in the mouth, aim to reposition the lower jaw and keep the airway open. They may benefit people with mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea.

Surgery. Surgical procedures may reduce excessive tissue in the throat or widen the airway, and benefit some people with obstructive sleep apnea.

Medications. No medications to date have been shown to be effective for treatment of obstructive sleep apnea.

If you have obstructive sleep apnea, successful treatment likely will help you sleep better, and stay more alert and focused in waking hours. It will enable you to perform your job better, and improve your odds of staying safe at work and while driving.

"After the first night that I wore the CPAP air machine and slept all night, the next day, when I woke up, I said to myself, 'This is what it's like to sleep all night? This is wonderful!' I felt like a million dollars. I felt like Superman.  Ever since, I've used the CPAP air machine every night when I go to bed, and it’s improved my health. It's also made my life less stressful, because I'm more rested. I bought another CPAP air machine, and I keep that up at my hotel at my away-from-home terminal. Our job, our safety, depends on how rested we are." 
-Mark Kramer, locomotive engineer