Can sleep apnea be cured? Is it hereditary? These are common questions raised by those who have been diagnosed with sleep apnea or suspect they may have it. Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is a disorder in which your airway is blocked when you sleep, which interrupts breathing. OSA puts you at risk for many other health conditions, such as stroke and high blood pressure.
While lifestyle modifications like weight loss are emphasized, is there really a definitive cure for OSA? When people think of sleep apnea, they tend to think of CPAP therapy and CPAP machines. There is also a whole slew of alternatives to CPAP therapy that can help reduce the symptoms of sleep apnea. It’s rare that sleep apnea resolves itself, but it’s possible in some cases such as in those involving weight loss and with some surgeries.
Generally speaking, any healthy lifestyle choice you make can aid in helping your sleep apnea symptoms get better and in some rarer cases even eliminate it altogether.
Is There a Cure for Sleep Apnea?
So, is there a cure for sleep apnea? The general answer is no, but it’s not unheard of that someone who was previously diagnosed with OSA was able to kick the disease through exercise and some lifestyle changes. However, it’s not all about that hard work when it comes to curing sleep apnea. Some folks may have one of the different types of sleep apnea or other conditions that when combined with their sleep apnea only serve to exacerbate it.
Before delving too deep into some common possible treatments for sleep apnea, it’s important to note first that there are actually three types of sleep apnea: Obstructive Sleep Apnea, Central Sleep Apnea (CSA), and Complex or Mixed Sleep Apnea. The last one is sometimes also known as CompSA to avoid having two types be abbreviated as CSA. The main difference between them is how they occur in your body:
- OSA. With OSA, your airway is blocked when you sleep, which interrupts breathing, and you eventually wake up gasping or choking for air as your brain tells you to wake up to catch your breath. Each one of these events is measured by a scale called the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI). In order to determine whether you have mild, moderate, or severe OSA, during a sleep test, sleep specialists will count how many of these stoppages you have per hour as an average. You’d be diagnosed with mild if you have 5 to 15, moderate if you have between 5 and 15 and 30, and severe if you have more than 30. Approximately 80% of the 22 million Americans with sleep apnea have either moderate or severe sleep apnea.
- CSA. CSA is a less common form of the condition compared to OSA. It is generally caused by medical concerns that affect the brain. CSA is a condition in which the signals to breathe are not sent by the brain, and as a result, the person does not draw a breath. This is different from OSA in that there doesn’t have to be a blocked airway that prevents a person from breathing. CSA happens when your brain is unable to send the proper signals to your muscles that control your breathing.
- CompSA. CompSA is a relative newcomer to sleep apnea, having only been discovered in 2006. Researchers found that some people with apparent severe OSA were not completely helped by CPAP therapy. Through their research, they discovered that the real culprit was OSA mixed with CSA. This condition is a particularly dangerous combination of the other two types of sleep apnea: OSA and CSA.
Only mild OSA is considered curable—there are some suggestions that surgery can cure it, but there’s also no guarantee it won’t return if you have surgery. The good news is that there’s a variety of other ways that you can effectively manage your sleep apnea.
Possible Treatments and Cures for Sleep Apnea
In most cases, sleep apnea may never go away but you can manage it effectively either through CPAP therapy or other ways. For instance, there are specialty surgeries that have varying degrees of success, and others such as quitting smoking that while won’t cure your sleep apnea but may help you breathe better overall.
There are some surgeries that can help those living with sleep apnea. The Sleep Community for Sleep-Care Professionals notes these benefits may not be permanent. In fact, sleep apnea could reoccur at any later time. These include:
- Mandibular Advancement Surgery. This procedure involves breaking the lower jawbone, moving it forward, and then fixing it in place with usually titanium plates and screws. If this sounds like an invasive procedure, that’s because it is and its biggest successes are usually in people whose lower jaw is small or set back.
- Soft Tissue Surgery. A uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, which is a soft tissue surgery removes and or remodels the tissue within the throat. Unfortunately, while soft tissue surgery may prove helpful in children and teens, it’s not very effective in adults.
Quitting Smoking and Sleep Apnea
In a hallmark 2014 study, researchers found that smoking raises the risk of developing sleep apnea. If you decide to quit—congratulations, first of all! Secondly, quitting itself isn’t necessarily a cure, but it can certainly help.
If you do smoke and get poor sleep, it’s likely you are able to mask the symptoms of poor sleep through nicotine. Nicotine is a stimulant, so a few cigarettes a day will give you an extra energy boost in the same way a cup of coffee would, and you can hide those symptoms of poor sleep. Coffee has its pros and cons as they relate to sleep, but smoking’s overall impact on your respiratory system makes it worse for your sleeping. Smoking narrows your airway because of the swelling of tissues and mucus. Stopping can help because smoking makes blood oxygen level drops worse due to lung damage. These drops are slowed down when you stop smoking.
Changing sleeping positions is one of the more common home remedies for mitigating snoring. If you’ve tried that already and you are still not getting enough rest or your partner has reported this change has not yielded results, then a sleep study may be in order for you to find out whether or not you have sleep apnea.
If you already have sleep apnea, you may have heard that the best position to sleep in is on your side. Side sleeping helps alleviate issues like insomnia and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which can both contribute negatively to sleep apnea. But do you know which side is best and how other sleeping positions impact sleep apnea?
- Left-Side Sleeping. Sleeping on your left side is highly recommended as it allows for the best blood flow and creates little to no resistance for breathing conditions. If you want to become a left-side sleeper, start by finding a good, firm pillow that can support your neck and back. One thing worth noting about this position is that people who have been diagnosed with congestive heart failure should check with their doctors before choosing this sleep position because left-side sleeping is generally discouraged as it can cause discomfort or add unnecessary stress on the heart.
- Right-Side Sleeping. You also can’t go wrong with right-side sleeping. Right-side sleeping is a good choice as it reduces the likelihood of snoring and promotes good air and blood flow throughout the body. One of the right-side sleeping variants, the fetal position, is actually the most popular sleeping position for Americans. It’s not a threat to sleep apnea, but it can create other issues with the neck or back, especially as we get older. If you prefer to sleep in the fetal position, consider staying on your side but stretching out a little bit. However, studies have found that right-side sleeping can aggravate symptoms of reflux because it can relax the lower esophageal sphincter.If you struggle with acid reflux, talk to your doctor before sleeping on your right side.
- Prone (Stomach) Sleeping. Stomach sleeping works with gravity because it pulls the tongue and soft tissue forward, eliminating airway obstructions and lessening the likelihood of snoring, so it’s not the worst position. However, it is common for a stomach sleeper to bury their face too far in the pillow or to allow the pillow to cover some or most of their mouth, which can actually work against good breathing and sleep apnea.
- Supine (Back) Sleeping. Back sleeping works against gravity and causes the soft tissues in the upper airway (including the adenoids, the tongue, and the uvula) to crowd and create upper airway resistance. The term for this type of obstruction is positional obstructive sleep apnea. Simply put, when the tongue relaxes back, your sleep apnea gets worse. Many people who struggle with sleep apnea have historically chosen back sleeping as their sleep position of choice.
It seems that it’d be difficult to train your body to sleep in a position other than the one you’ve always known. After all, you’re asleep—how are you supposed to know which direction to position your body and how to train it to be in that position all night? It’s actually possible to train yourself to sleep in another position. It does take some practice and willpower, but it’s entirely possible.
Remember that sleep apnea is a disorder that can’t really be cured, but its most effective treatment is proper management of it. While CPAP therapy is an effective way of treating sleep apnea, some people simply never take to it for myriad reasons: whether they couldn’t readjust their body to sleep comfortably while wearing their mask, their mask fit poorly, or they simply didn’t like it.
In those cases, your doctor may recommend you give oral appliance therapy (OAT) a try instead. An oral appliance or dental device (also called an anti-snoring mouthpiece) is a mouthguard-like splint that you wear over your teeth when you sleep. It keeps your airway open by sliding your lower jaw forward slightly, creating extra space at the back of your throat.
Some people prefer it over CPAP therapy as it does not interfere with their sleeping position, and it’s more convenient and portable than a CPAP machine. However, it’s not the right choice for everyone, so if you do decide you want to try OAT instead of CPAP, talk to your doctor who may refer you to a specialized dentist to help you make an appliance that’s right for you—similar to how Invisalign treatment is custom-made for the wearer.
Respiratory Disorders and Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea, sinusitis, and nasal congestions are all health conditions that reduce your quality of sleep by disrupting your breathing. While OSA blocks the throat, sinus inflammation (sinusitis) and nasal congestions block the nasal passages. The result of all three is an inability to get a good night’s sleep because you were unable to breathe due to those disruptions while your brain is telling your body to go to sleep. When this happens on a regular basis, it leads to chronic sleep loss and fatigue.
The links between the three are loose at best. There is research loosely linking OSA to sinusitis but nasal congestion can easily be treated with a NetiPot, which helps clear your nasal passages. If a few rounds with a NetiPot does not work, then you should seek medical care as it may be sinusitis, and you could need a round of antibiotics to clear it up.
You have likely heard that exercise can help with sleep apnea. If visions of treadmills, weights, and getting up before the sunrise sound terrifying, rest assured that what we are really discussing here is the importance of oral exercises. You may still not be able to dodge those early morning wake-up calls if you really want to nip your sleep apnea as close to its bud as possible, but an oft-overlooked area that can help are oral exercises for sleep apnea.
Essentially, any respiratory therapy designed to strengthen the muscles of the throat and airway will likely yield some dividends for your sleep apnea. These include those oral exercises as well as other activity that teaches you how to breathe from your diaphragm, such as yoga. This sort of muscular therapy is a somewhat nascent field, but one of its most cited studies is one that concluded that specific oropharyngeal (medical speak for the area of the back of the mouth) exercises effectively reduced snoring frequency by 36%.
Weight Loss and Sleep Apnea
One last way to alleviate the symptoms of sleep apnea is through weight loss. It’s very common for individuals who are overweight to have extra tissue in the back of their throat, which may fall down and block airways when they’re sleeping.
According to Harvard Medical School, losing weight can yield results. Simply losing 10 percent of your body weight can have a significant effect on sleep apnea symptoms. Losing a lot of weight could even eliminate the condition in some cases.
While weight loss offers many health benefits, it may not make a difference in sleep apnea symptoms for those who have narrow airways or nasal passages.
What Is the Best Course of Treatment for Sleep Apnea?
Trick question: the best treatment for sleep apnea is the one that works best for you. If you think you have sleep apnea, consult with a physician to evaluate whether or not you need a sleep study.
If you do and it is concluded that you have any of the three types of sleep apnea, you’ll likely start with CPAP therapy. CPAP therapy involves using a mask that fits on your face, which blows air into your airways, so they stay open at night. While wearing a CPAP mask can take some getting used to, changes in technology have made CPAP therapy much more comfortable for wearers today. There are also other types of machines, such as an APAP and a BiPAP machine that can also help that course of treatment.
It’s also entirely possible that with a little willpower and weight loss, your sleep apnea can resolve itself. Snoring in itself isn’t indicative of sleep apnea. There are cases where it’s simply an irritating form of noise pollution. However, if you snore or have been told you do, you should certainly see a doctor to discuss whether or not you should do a sleep study.
Check out our post for actionable home remedies for sleep apnea to take your sleep into your own hands.
David Repasky has been using CPAP treatment since 2017 and has first-hand experience with what it’s like to live with Sleep Apnea. He brings the patient’s perspective to the CPAP.com blog and has received formal training in CPAP machines, masks, and equipment.