Sleep apnea medical treatment

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]; Associate Editor(s)-In-Chief: Kashish Goel, M.D.


Overview

The treatment for obstructive sleep apnea in the case of adults with poor oropharyngeal airways secondary to heavy upper body type is varied. Unfortunately, in this most common type of obstructive sleep apnea, unlike some of the cases discussed above, reliable cures are not the rule.

Some treatments involve lifestyle changes, such as avoiding alcohol and medications that relax the central nervous system (for example, sedatives and muscle relaxants), losing weight, and quitting smoking. Some people are helped by special pillows or devices that keep them from sleeping on their backs, or oral appliances to keep the airway open during sleep. If these conservative methods are inadequate, doctors often recommend continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), in which a face mask is attached to a tube and a machine that blows pressurized air into the mask and through the airway to keep it open. There are also surgical procedures that can be used to remove and tighten tissue and widen the airway, but the success rate is not high. Some individuals may need a combination of therapies to successfully treat their sleep apnea.

Underlying Causes

There are a variety of treatments for obstructive sleep apnea, depending on an individual’s medical history, the severity of the disorder and, most importantly, the specific cause of the obstruction.

In acute infectious mononucleosis, for example, although the airway may be severely obstructed in the first 2 weeks of the illness, the presence of lymphoid tissue (suddenly enlarged tonsils and adenoids) blocking the throat is usually only temporary. A course of anti-inflammatory steroids such as prednisone (or another kind of glucocorticoid drug) is often given to reduce this lymphoid tissue. Although the effects of the steroids are short term, in most affected individuals, the tonsillar and adenoidal enlargement are also short term, and will be reduced on its own by the time a brief course of steroids is completed. In unusual cases where the enlarged lymphoid tissue persists after resolution of the acute stage of the Epstein-Barr infection, or in which medical treatment with anti-inflammatory steroids does not adequately relieve breathing, tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy may be urgently required.

Physical intervention

The most widely used current therapeutic intervention is positive airway pressure whereby a breathing machine pumps a controlled stream of air through a mask worn over the nose, mouth, or both. The additional pressure splints or holds open the relaxed muscles, just as air in a balloon inflates it. There are several variants:

  • (CPAP), or continuous positive airway pressure, in which a controlled air compressor generates an airstream at a constant pressure. This pressure is prescribed by the patient's physician, based on an overnight test or titration. Newer CPAP models are available which slightly reduce pressure upon exhalation to increase patient comfort and compliance. CPAP is the most common treatment for obstructive sleep apnea.
  • (VPAP), or variable positive airway pressure, also known as bilevel or BiPAP, uses an electronic circuit to monitor the patient's breathing, and provides two different pressures, a higher one during inhalation and a lower pressure during exhalation. This system is more expensive, and is sometimes used with patients who have other coexisting respiratory problems and/or who find breathing out against an increased pressure to be uncomfortable or disruptive to their sleep.
  • (APAP), or automatic positive airway pressure, is the newest form of such treatment. An APAP machine incorporates pressure sensors and a computer which continuously monitors the patient's breathing performance. It adjusts pressure continuously, increasing it when the user is attempting to breathe but cannot, and decreasing it when the pressure is higher than necessary. Although FDA approved, these devices are still considered experimental by many, and are not covered by most insurance plans.

A second type of physical intervention, a Mandibular advancement splint (MAS), is sometimes prescribed for mild or moderate sleep apnea sufferers. The device is a mouthguard similar to those used in sports to protect the teeth. For apnea patients, it is designed to hold the lower jaw slightly down and forward relative to the natural, relaxed position. This position holds the tongue farther away from the back of the airway, and may be enough to relieve apnea or improve breathing for some patients. The FDA accepts only 16 oral appliances for the treatment of sleep apnea. A listing is available at their website

Oral appliance therapy is less effective than CPAP, but is more 'user friendly'. Side-effects are common, but rarely is the patient aware of them.

Drug therapy

There are no effective drug-based treatment for obstructive sleep apnea.

Oral administration of the methylxanthine theophylline (chemically similar to caffeine) can reduce the number of episodes of apnea, but can also produce side effects such as palpitations and insomnia. Theophylline is generally ineffective in adults with OSA, but is sometimes used to treat central sleep apnea (see below), and infants and children with apnea.

When other treatments do not completely treat the OSA, drugs are sometimes prescribed to treat a patient's daytime sleepiness or somnolence. These range from stimulants such as amphetamines to modern anti-narcoleptic medicines. The anti-narcoleptic modafinil is seeing increased use in this role as of 2004.

In most cases, weight loss will reduce the number and severity of apnea episodes. In the morbidly obese, a major loss of weight (such as what occurs afterbariatric surgery) can sometimes cure the condition.

Neurostimulation

Many researchers believe that OSA is at root a neurological condition, in which nerves that control the tongue and soft palate fail to sufficiently stimulate those muscles, leading to over-relaxation and airway blockage. A few experiments and trial studies have explored the use of pacemakers and similar devices, programmed to detect breathing effort and deliver gentle electrical stimulation to the muscles of the tongue.

This is not a common mode of treatment for OSA patients as of 2004, but it is an active field of research.

References



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