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Sleep Apnea


An in-depth report on the causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of sleep apnea.

Lifestyle Changes

Often, body position greatly affects the number and severity of episodes of obstructive sleep apnea, with at least twice as many apneas occurring when a person lies face upward than when the person lies on his or her side. This may be due to the effects of gravity, which cause the throat to narrow when a person lies on the back. (Indeed, astronauts show a marked reduction in apneas and snoring in the weightlessness of space.)

As a first step in dealing with sleep apnea, the patient should simply try rolling over onto the side. Patients who sleep on their backs and have 50 to 80 apneas (breathless events) per hour can sometimes reduce them to nearly zero when they shift to one side or the other. (The more overweight a person is the less effective changing positions is, but it still helps.)

Some suggestions that might help a person maintain a low-risk sleeping position are as follows:

  • Sew a small pocket to the back of the pajamas and place a tennis ball or other small ball into it.
  • A special pillow that helps to stretch the neck may reduce snoring and improve sleep for people with mild sleep apnea.
  • One study suggested that sleeping in an upright position could improve oxygen levels in overweight people with sleep apnea. Elevating the head of the bed may help.

Nasal Strips

Over-the-counter nasal strips, such as the Breathe Right strip, or other devices that open the nostrils are inexpensive and useful to prevent snoring. They may significantly improve early-stage sleep in people with sleep disorders associated with nasal obstruction and help reduce morning tiredness. They are not intended as treatments for sleep apnea, however.

Weight Loss

All patients with obstructive sleep apnea who are overweight should attempt a weight-reducing program. Weight loss certainly reduces snoring in many people, sometimes stopping it completely. It also improves sleep and significantly reduces daytime sleepiness. One 2000 study suggested that people who lost 10% of body weight experienced an average 26% reduction in risk for developing sleep apnea in the first place. (Gaining 10% of their body weight, on the other hand, increased the odds of sleep apnea six-fold.) At the least, losing weight is certainly important for healthy blood pressure and for reducing the risk for diabetes.

Smoking and Alcohol

  • Smokers should quit, since smoking worsens apnea.
  • Alcohol should be avoided within four hours of sleep.


In general, drugs have not been very beneficial except for specific situations. Using medications for treating accompanying disorders that may be associated with sleep apnea may be helpful. The following may be helpful for certain patients:

  • In January 2004 Provigil (modanifil), which is showing promise for narcolepsy, was approved by the FDA as the first drug to treat the sleepiness associated with obstructive sleep apnea. However, Provigil is meant to be used in combination with-- not as a substitute for-- standard apnea treatments such as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). Sleep experts stress that patients who take Provigil should adhere to CPAP treatment as the drug treats only the symptom of sleepiness, not the underlying health risks associated with sleep apnea.
  • Thyroid hormone may help sleep apnea in those with hypothyroidism.
  • Theophylline, a drug commonly used for asthma management, has shown promise in treating central sleep apnea in patients with heart failure.
  • Omeprazole (Prilosec), a drug used for patients with severe heartburn (gastroesophageal reflux disorder), may helpful for patients with both problems.
  • A nasal spray containing the steroid fluticasone improved breathing in a small 2001 study of children with obstructive sleep apnea due to enlarged tonsils and adenoids. (This approach wasn't as effective as surgical removal of these structures.)

Note on Sedatives. Sedatives, narcotics, and anti-anxiety drugs can actually worsen the breathing disturbances and arousal conditions that occur with sleep apnea These substances cause the soft tissues in the throat to sag and diminish the body's ability to inhale. Apnea sufferers should stay away from sleeping pills and tranquilizers completely. Apnea patients undergoing surgery should be sure that their surgeons, anesthesiologists, and other physicians are aware of their sleeping disorder in considering sedatives, anesthetics, and medications taken to relieve pain due to surgery.


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