Image: What does a CPAP machine do when you stop breathing

If you have sleep apnea, you may have been advised to use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine to treat your condition.

Oftentimes, however, patients who are new to CPAP therapy may find it overwhelming. As such, you may start to wonder how this breathing device and the mask that comes with it work to deal with your sleep disorder.

And if you’re here trying to figure that out, then you’re in the right place. Keep reading to find out more about how these devices relieve the symptoms of sleep apnea.

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

To find out if you have sleep apnea, you have to consult a doctor — preferably a sleep specialist.

They may make an evaluation based on your symptoms, medical history, and perform a sleep study. The evaluation will most likely be at a sleep disorder center. It may involve overnight monitoring of your breathing as well as other body functions while you slumber.

Some tests used to diagnose sleep apnea include nocturnal polysomnography and home sleep tests.

Nocturnal polysomnography, also called a sleep study, is a test used to diagnose sleep disorders. Polysomnography can be done in a hospital or sleep lab. Here, you’ll be hooked up to equipment that monitors your breathing patterns, lung and brain activity, the oxygen level in your blood, heart rate, as well as your eye and leg movements overnight.

On the other hand, today, many people can be tested in the comfort of their own homes. Your sleep doctor may provide simplified tests for you to use at home to diagnose sleep apnea. These tests usually use portable monitors that measure your heart rate, breathing, blood oxygen level, and airflow pattern.

Types of Sleep Apnea

If your results are abnormal, it may indicate sleep-related illnesses such as sleep apnea or breathing disorders. A sleep apnea diagnosis can depend on the number of breathing episodes you experience with every hour of your sleep, as indicated by your polysomnography.

Moreover, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, sleep apnea can be categorized from mild to severe depending on how many times you stopped breathing:

  • Mild: 5-15 breathing episodes per hour
  • Moderate: 15-30 breathing episodes per hour
  • Severe: More than 30 breathing episodes per hour

If you’re diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), your doctor might recommend for you to visit an ear, nose, and throat doctor to determine if there’s a blockage in your nose or throat.

On the other hand, if you have central sleep apnea, it might be necessary for you to get checked by a cardiologist or neurologist to look into its causes.


The therapy that your doctor may prescribe depends on how serious your sleep apnea is. If you have mild sleep apnea, you may need to make lifestyle changes to treat the issue. These lifestyle changes may include:

  • Losing weight
  • Increased physical activity
  • Sleeping on your side
  • Avoiding alcohol
  • Quit smoking

However, if you have moderate to severe sleep apnea, you may need more than just making lifestyle changes to deal with your condition.

This is where a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device comes in as the gold standard of treatment. A CPAP machine blows a steady stream of air into the back of the throat, allowing its users to breathe easier.

Does a CPAP machine have side effects?

Although this device is often the first solution that doctors suggest for sleep apnea, using a CPAP can have its own side effects. And even though most of them are mild, for many people, it means giving up altogether on their CPAP therapy.

In some cases, however, some side effects can also be serious. For instance, the recent Philips CPAP recall saw the medical device manufacturer taking off thousands of CPAP devices from the market due to serious health concerns.

According to CPAP lawsuits recently filed in the court, the sound abatement foam of the recalled CPAP machines can break down, emitting potentially toxic chemicals which can be ingested or inhaled by its user. When this happens, the toxic particles can cause lung injuries, respiratory problems, and even cancer.

If you’re uncomfortable with your CPAP mask, talk to your sleep doctor so they can help you with other options to sleep well.

If you find that a CPAP machine doesn’t work for you, they may recommend other airway pressure devices, including an auto CPAP and BiPAP. An auto CPAP is useful for the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea. It automatically adjusts the pressurized flow of air while you sleep.

On the other hand, a bilevel positive airway pressure or BiPAP machine gives your body more pressure as you inhale and less when you exhale.

How CPAP Works

CPAP devices have been used for sleep apnea treatment since 1981. They help people with sleep apnea breathe more easily during sleep. With this disorder, a person’s breathing often starts and stops during the night that it can lead to or cause an increased risk of several health problems.

Through the use of tubing and a mask, a CPAP machine delivers a constant stream of air into your airway. It creates adequate pressure to prevent the muscles in the back of your throat from narrowing, leading to a constricted airway and causing snoring or interrupted sleep.

This pressurized air from a CPAP device is provided through a mask that seals with your mouth or nose. By supporting the airway, the breathing of a sleep apnea sufferer normalizes, their sleep quality improves, and disturbed sleep resolves.

Untreated Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition that can lead to complications such as loud snoring and daytime sleepiness if it goes untreated. Untreated sleep apnea also leads to serious health problems, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart problems
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • An issue with certain drugs and surgery
  • Liver damage

Because their breathing stops repeatedly during sleep, people with the condition find it difficult to have a restorative sleep at night. This can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness and irritability. At work, they might have trouble concentrating on their tasks and even fall asleep in the workplace.

Falling asleep in a vehicle while driving is also possible. That’s why this complication can easily make individuals more prone to accidents in the workplace or the road.

On the other hand, a sudden drop in blood oxygen levels during sleep can also result in elevated blood pressure and put stress on your cardiovascular system. Untreated sleep apnea can also put you at risk for strokes, heart attacks, or abnormal heart rhythm.

Lastly, this condition can also cause individuals to obtain abnormal results in liver function tests. According to study findings published in Cureus, OSA patients may be at an increased risk of increased liver enzymes and incidence of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), particularly patients who are older and obese.

CPAP Dropouts

An estimated 18 million American adults have sleep apnea. The go-to treatment recommended by doctors is a CPAP device. It offers a healthy and restorative night’s sleep, but the truth is many people find it difficult to adjust to the machine.

In fact:

Several studies suggest that around one-third to more than 50 percent of patients either stop using their breathing device or don’t bother at all to fill their prescription.

They quit due to varied reasons, but mostly because they couldn’t get used to wearing a device that has a mask and covers both their nose and mouth. Most people find it hard to adjust to the CPAP machine because it makes them uncomfortable.

Add to that the overwhelming whoosh of air in your throat and you might understand why many people may have a negative reaction toward the devices. However, it’s important to note that the health complications related to sleep apnea can be serious.

Daytime fatigue, low productivity, and anxiety can greatly impact one’s quality of life. Not to mention the increased risk of developing health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, just to name a few.

Getting The Most Out Of Your Therapy

Most patients complain about the CPAP pressure being too much for them. The volume of the air that the machine puts out can be very overwhelming. However, people can overcome these difficulties by working closely with their doctors. Particularly, a sleep specialist may help you find the right fitting mask so that you don’t struggle with the claustrophobic feeling the device may trigger.

Another key to a successful CPAP therapy is cooperating with your doctor and making sure you’re there during follow-ups. Getting used to the machine may be difficult at first, that’s why follow-up is key. Check back with your doctor if you’re having problems with your CPAP machine.

Given that being there during follow-ups and maintaining communication with your doctor can easily be done for most people, it may well be worth it to struggle at first with your CPAP therapy, given the benefits that you’re likely to reap during the course of your treatment.

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