What is Continuous Positive Air Pressure?

You’ve had the sleep study and heard the words, “You have sleep apnea.” For many people the next step is getting fitted for a CPAP machine, a device that provides continuous positive airway pressure. And although CPAP is regarded as the most effective treatment of sleep apnea, most don’t know how the treatment works to help promote a better night’s sleep and reduce the dangerous side effects of sleep apnea, such as stroke and high blood pressure.

Simply put, CPAP can keep your airway open while you sleep, helping you breathe better, according to the National Institutes of Health.

When someone with sleep apnea relaxes and falls asleep, the tongue or soft palate in the mouth shifts back slightly and blocks the airway, said Dr. Murray Grossan, an ear, nose and throat specialist in Los Angeles. That blockage can reduce the amount of oxygen the body receives, which can lead to a host of health issues.

“The body naturally compensates for the reduction of air by increasing blood pressure in order to supply the brain with the proper amount of oxygen,” Grossan said. “Acid reflux can also result because the diaphragm pushes down on the stomach to get more air. And obesity is also a risk because the fatigue associated with the lack of proper sleep has your body wanting more food, which it will use for energy.”

CPAP delivers air to the body via one of several different mask types that cover the nose and/or mouth. Specialized technicians work with sleep apnea patients to fit the mask and find the pressure that delivers the best results.

“When you inhale, the CPAP machine gently blows air through a tube into the mask. The air presses on the walls of the airways to keep them open,” noted Dr. Cong Thu Nguyen, an ENT and sleep physician at the Houston Sinus & Allergy. “When you exhale, the CPAP continues to gently blow air through the tube to keep the airways open and to push the exhaled air and carbon dioxide through holes in the mask.”

That steady supply of air, which Grossan said is delivered intermittently at a pressure sufficient to overcome blockage, helps keeps the airway open to ensure the body is properly oxygenated.

CPAP also can help reduce, or even eliminate, snoring.

When the tongue or soft palate blocks the airway, the soft palate vibrates against the back of the throat when the sleep apnea patient tries to breathe. “That causes the snoring sound,” Nguyen said. Because CPAP opens airways and removes the blockage, there’s nothing to vibrate and cause the snoring.

“After a week using CPAP, most people notice the huge difference in energy and vitality and, as a result, wouldn’t dream of going back to a non-CPAP way of life,” Grossan said.