Do CPAP Machines Really Work? Answers from a Sleep Specialist

Does CPAP work? Ask a Sleep Specialist!
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    Content Partly Provided by Dr. Barbara Phillips, MD, MSPH, FCCP

    Sleep Apnea is a condition in which airways become blocked while sleeping, interrupting your breathing. The most commonly prescribed sleep apnea treatment is the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.

    Once patients have been diagnosed with sleep apnea, one of the most common questions they ask is, “Do CPAP machines really work?” After all, these machines look strange, and wearing one feels weird at first.

    To answer this question, we turned to an expert sleep specialist, Dr. Phillips. Practicing at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, she’s certified in sleep medicine and formerly chaired both the Sleep Institute and the National Sleep Foundation. We asked Dr. Phillips about how well CPAP machines really work, how long it takes a machine to begin working, and more.

    Do CPAP Machines Really Work?

    The short answer—yes. Research studies have found that people who use CPAP see results, have better health, and a better prognosis. However, Dr. Phillips mentioned, “The caveat is that most studies are usually randomized and then compared, which makes it hard to prove that CPAP is truly effective. Reasons for this: CPAP use is not controlled and prone to user error; people who use CPAP in these studies tend to be more health-conscious and do other things that improve their overall health as well.”

    The key message is that yes, CPAP machines really do work, but using it is crucial. “Yes, CPAP can reduce or prevent many of the consequences of Sleep Apnea, but you gotta use it at least four hours a night, and it has to be set right for you,” Dr. Phillips told us. The bottom line, it’s an effective treatment. But it’s not going to work if you don’t use it regularly or correctly.

    How Do CPAP Machines Work?

    If you have sleep apnea, you have difficulty keeping your airways open for normal breathing while you’re sleeping. In many cases, the soft tissues in the oral cavity and the throat relax and/or collapse, closing off the airways. This can result in pauses in breathing that may occur long enough and consistently enough to deprive your bloodstream of the oxygen it needs for all your organs.

    When your brain senses the drop in oxygen, it makes you wake up, and these pauses in breathing and awakenings can happen more than 100 times per hour for some people. A CPAP machine helps to keep these pauses in breathing from occurring.

    The machine, via a mask and tubing, delivers pressurized air that acts as an air splint to keep your throat and other oral tissues from collapsing. By preventing obstructions, you’re able to breathe freely, which keeps blood oxygen levels normal and prevents you from waking up multiple times each night.

    Although it may take some time to adjust to wearing the mask, using CPAP offers many benefits. Some of the benefits of CPAP therapy include more refreshing sleep, reduced risk of stroke, lower blood pressure, and help controlling diabetes.

    How Long Does a CPAP Machine Take to Work?

    Every patient is different. Some people use their CPAP machine and enjoy an incredible night of rest on the first try. Others find that it takes some time to get used to the treatment.

    Certain patients may not feel the effects of CPAP right away. Some of the reasons this occurs include:

    • The CPAP machine isn’t set correctly for their needs. A sleep specialist can help you determine the best CPAP setting for your needs, and APAP may be recommended in some cases.
    • Dr. Phillips noted, “Sleepiness might not be able to be fixed just with CPAP because sleepiness might be due to other facts like depression or not getting enough sleep at night.”
    • Mask leaks can make it feel like CPAP isn’t working. A cheap mask or a mask in the wrong size not only feels uncomfortable, but it can keep your machine from working correctly.
    • Sometimes it takes a few weeks of continuous weeks to begin seeing results.
    • In rare cases, an incorrect diagnosis may occur, and a patient may not actually need CPAP.

    Can CPAP Machines Help Treat COPD, Asthma, or Other Lung Diseases?

    While CPAP has been proven to be an effective sleep apnea treatment, PAP therapy is also used to treat other conditions as well. BiPAP is often used in a hospital setting to treat COPD with good results. When asked about CPAP as a treatment for asthma, Dr. Phillips commented, “It’s not established for treating asthma, but there is a big overlap between Sleep Apnea patients and asthma patients, probably because obesity is a risk factor for both of them.”

    Do CPAP machines really work? Yes, all the evidence, as well as patient testimonials, point to the fact that CPAP offers an effective treatment for sleep apnea. The correct settings, a properly fitting and comfortable mask, and using it regularly are vital to seeing the results you want.

    More About Dr. Phillips

    Dr.Barbara Phillips just retired as Professor of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, where she spent her entire professional career. She established and directed the University of Kentucky Sleep Center. Dr. Phillips is a Past President of the American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST). She serves on the Board of Trustees of the CHEST Foundation, and as a Consultant to the National Board of Respiratory Care.

    She is a past chairman of the National Sleep Foundation and the American Board of Sleep Medicine. She has served on the boards of the American Lung Association, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the Medical Advisory Board of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and the Advisory Board to the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research. She has received a Sleep Academic Award from the National Institutes of Health and an Excellence in Education Award from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

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