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What Is a CPAP Machine?

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines help treat people with sleep apnea, a medical condition that occurs when a person's breathing stops and restarts while sleeping.
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  • Written By: Rachel Burkot
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2014
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A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine is a device used to treat sleep apnea. It consists of the machine itself, which is no bigger than a shoebox, and a mask that is worn over the face, particularly the nose and mouth. A tube runs from the machine to the mask. CPAP machines must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because they are medical devices. A CPAP machine can only be obtained by a patient with a physician’s prescription.

A CPAP machine pushes air through a patient’s airway passage at an extremely high pressure, which helps to prevent the apnea from occurring. Sleep apnea is a condition in which a person stops breathing for any length of time between a few seconds and a few minutes while asleep. The machines work for both central and obstructive sleep apnea, and the pressure can be adjusted for each patient, depending on the degree of sleep apnea he or she experiences. Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain neglects to send the breathing signals to the breathing muscles, and no effort to breathe is made. Obstructive sleep apnea is more common and is caused by the airways collapsing during sleep.

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A CPAP machine will usually be covered by a patient’s medical insurance, and the individual generally gets to choose from a variety of machine manufacturers. Patients may also rent CPAP machines as opposed to purchasing their own. They can be rented or bought at a home health care company or a medical equipment company. These machines can also be purchased on the Internet, but if the patient chooses to go this route, he or she is recommended to do research and read reviews before buying online. Additionally, it is a good idea for patients to rent a CPAP machine for a little while, even if they eventually plan to buy their own, so they can get used to it and learn how it works first.

CPAP masks take some getting used to, and a CPAP machine may come with one of two types of masks: one that covers the nose and mouth or one that only covers the nose. The one that only covers the nose is called a nasal continuous positive airway pressure (NCPAP) mask. If a patient is having trouble adjusting to the mask and machine, he or she should consult a doctor. Perhaps the other type of mask should be tried, or the pressure might need to be adjusted. If used properly, a CPAP machine will treat moderate to severe cases of sleep apnea.

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