CPAP machines are the go-to therapy for obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that occurs when airways are blocked during sleep.
“When we fall asleep, all the muscles in our body start to relax including the soft tissue in the back of the throat and the tongue,” said Darren Phillips, supervisor of respiratory services at Sanford Health Equip in Bemidji, Minnesota. “Gravity takes over and pulls that tissue against the back of the throat, basically creating an obstruction.”
If your doctor has diagnosed you with sleep apnea, they likely have prescribed continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, to help you sleep soundly through the night.
“The pressure applied from a CPAP machine acts like an air splint to push that soft tissue off the back of the throat and keep the airway open. So every breath we take in, we get a good breath of oxygen,” said Phillips.
For CPAP to help, you have to use it consistently – and plenty of people struggle with getting used to the sound and the feeling of the machine. In fact, studies have shown that up to half of CPAP users quit within the first year.
For those patients just beginning their journeys with a CPAP machine, there can be plenty of questions. We’ve tried to answer some of the most common queries here.
What if I don’t treat my sleep apnea?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with sleep apnea have been found to be at increased risk for a number of cardiovascular diseases, including high blood pressure, stroke, coronary heart disease and irregular heartbeats.
Research also shows that insufficient sleep is linked to obesity, an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and even depression. In rare instances, sleep apnea can cause death.
What type of CPAP mask is right for me?
According to Paul Andreas, regional operations manager for Sanford Health Equip in Bemidji, the most common issue is finding the right type of mask.
“We have nasal masks that go around just the nose, and that works excellent for people who can breathe well through their nose,” said Andreas. “Then for people who are a little bit claustrophobic, we have some that just go up into the nose so there’s very little on their head. They’re wide open. If they’ve got a really stuffy nose or maybe have a deviated septum or problems like that, we’ll put them in a full face mask.”
What if I’m having trouble with the mask sealing?
“We tell people, make sure before you go to bed that your face is clean,” said Phillips. “Try to get all the oils off your face. Don’t use any lotions. Don’t use any face creams or anything around your face where the mask is going to come in contact.
“Number two, the cushions on the masks are silicone, and we encourage them to wash those daily with a detergent. Oils on the skin can cause the cushions to get extremely soft and you’ll lose your seal very easily.”
Can I keep my beard?
Yes, but Phillips does caution those with facial hair that they may not be getting the full benefits of the CPAP machine.
“Try and keep it trimmed if possible. There’s always going to be some leaking going on if you have facial hair. The whiskers create micro-leaks. But keeping that facial hair down as low as we can will create a much better seal.”
My mouth keeps opening and unsealing the mask – what can I do?
“For patients that can’t keep their mouth closed, most of them will opt for a full face mask,” said Andreas. “If they can’t keep their mouth shut, but still struggle with claustrophobia, we do have chin straps as well.”
I’ve been struggling to get comfortable with the mask and equipment for weeks now. Any advice?
“The first thing that I tell people is, it’s not normal to fall asleep with something strapped to your face and a 30 mph wind blowing up your nose! It’s going to take time,” said Phillips. “As time progresses, people get desensitized, but we do a lot of follow-up with each patient including multiple different mask fittings to find that one device that is comfortable for them.”
Do I have to learn to sleep on my back?
“We’ve all got that one position that’s comfortable that we have to start sleeping in and then once we fall asleep who knows what happens,” said Phillips. “But there is a misconception that I’ve got to lay on my back, and that’s not true at all. There are pillows out there that are actually designed for people with CPAP masks with little cut-outs in the sides of them so the pillow doesn’t put pressure on the mask. There are lots of different products out there to assist in the comfort of wearing a CPAP, and you can find those products in our stores.”
How important is it to clean my equipment?
“Cleaning is extremely important purely for the patient’s health,” said Andreas. “All of these machines have humidifiers in them, so anytime we have a humidifier in there we’re going to add a chance for bacteria to grow. When you aren’t cleaning, that bacteria is going to build up and you’re going to have some trouble. You can grow mold inside of those machines, so washing with a good detergent is really important.”
How do I travel with a CPAP machine?
“If you’re flying, carry it on the plane with you,” said Phillips. “The airlines cannot charge the patient extra for a CPAP carry-on because it is a medical device.”
“There are smaller travel-sized CPAP machines as well,” said Andreas. “When I talk about camping either with electricity without electricity, we have some awesome little machines at our stores. They don’t have all the features, but you can just plug them into your battery and away you go. You can literally be portable and enjoy life.”
How can I prevent having lines on my face when I wake up?
“We always encourage people to stay hydrated because if you get dehydrated those lines are going to be more pronounced,” said Phillips. “We find too, with people that have older equipment, they may need to replace their head gear and their cushion because as things get older, the gear stretches, the cushion gets soft and they have to really tighten things up more to keep their seal.”
Will my sleep apnea ever go away?
“We get this question a lot. Sleep apnea is a condition of the tongue and soft tissue relaxing and creating an obstruction in the back of the throat. Most often it is caused by the position we sleep in and gravity,” said Phillips. “Weight loss may decrease the severity of the obstruction, but most often sleep apnea does not go away.”
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