Though there are many options for treating sleep apnea, each has a common goal – preventing airway constriction during sleep. The treatment plan recommended will depend on a number of factors, including severity of the sleep apnea, physical and anatomical causes and history. Treatment options include:
- Lifestyle changes and allergy management
- Breathing devices
- Dental appliances
Lifestyle changes are often recommended to increase the odds of success with more aggressive intervention. Losing weight, quitting smoking and reducing allergy symptoms will generally have a positive impact on sleep apnea. In some cases, lifestyle changes will be enough to solve the problem. In almost all cases, weight loss and smoking cessation will reduce severity and give the treatment plan better odds of success.
The gold standard for sleep apnea is non-surgical – a breathing mask used during sleep. Also known as CPAP or BI-PAP, The machine increases air pressure in the throat, which prevents it from closing during sleep.
CPAP is not always successful, however, and the doctor has additional non-surgical options, including the dental appliance – a custom-fit mouthpiece that changes the position of the jaw during sleep to encourage the airway to stay open.
When all else fails, surgery may be recommended.
Most adults respond better to non-surgical options and surgery is reserved only for the most severe cases. In children, surgery is sometimes more effective than in adults due to the physical differences of the young upper airway.
Surgery generally has the goal of creating more room in the upper airway by reducing the size of the structures that are causing obstruction. When appropriate, the doctor will repair nasal problems at the same time – including deviated septum or nasal polyps – which can cause breathing problems and contribute to snoring.
The extent of surgery depends on the severity of the problem. In mild cases, a simple office procedure to reduce the tonsils and long palate might take care of it. The doctor may also be able to shrink problem areas with injected agents.
More severe cases may require more extensive work in the nose and throat, shortening and stiffening of the upper airway and tonsil removal.
The most aggressive surgery will involve the changing the geometry of the jaw and reducing the size of the tongue. Discomfort and recovery time will depend on the extent of the surgery.