Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) refers to a medical device used primarily for the treatment of sleep apnea, although it may also be employed to transition patients in hospitals from breathing tubes, or intubation, to regular breathing. Those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder or other breathing disorders may also use a CPAP at night.
A CPAP machine has a small box connected to tubes through which air flows. The tubes are connected to a mask worn on the face. Straps around the mask fit it to the face over the mouth and nose. For those with sleep apnea, the CPAP is used at night during normal sleep.
Sleep apnea causes interruption of natural breathing during sleep. The CPAP uses compressed air to keep the air passage open so breathing continues normally. The appropriate pressure values are determined during a sleep study. Sleep laboratories observe patients overnight to gauge their degree of apnea and other sleep problems. After a person's sleep is observed, a recommendation is made as to what pressure value is likely to be most effective.
Since sleep apnea can have an overall effect on a person’s wakefulness during the day, a CPAP is a useful tool. One study originating from New Zealand suggests that untreated cases of sleep apnea create a state similar to intoxication. Drivers with sleep apnea are much more likely to be involved in car accidents than those without. Therefore, addressing sleep apnea through CPAP is sensible.
However, many patients find the equipment onerous, and the CPAP can actually cause wakefulness in some. Early CPAP machines were noisy, making it harder for users to fall asleep. The noise of air being pushed through the machine is also troubling to many users.
More expensive and newer versions of CPAPs are easily portable and far quieter. These new models can record the user’s breaths and deliver air only as needed. New masks that fit to the nose only and don’t require the use of straps can create a more comfortable environment for sleep.
These newer versions make travel fairly easy. In most cases, a CPAP can be carried onto a plane. International travel may require the purchase of plug adaptors.
Even though the CPAP and its parts have improved, many people are still reluctant to use this equipment. Patients may not only experience interrupted sleep because of the noise, but may also suffer from chronic nasal congestion, eye and skin irritations, and dry throat. Partners of people who use the CPAP often find the noise disruptive to sleep and may need to sleep in a different bedroom.
By working closely with the respiratory therapist who trains the user of the CPAP, some of these problems can be reduced. For example, a mask that is too tight or too loose can cause both eye and skin problems. A humidifier can address both nasal congestion and dry or sore throat.
Most insurance companies pay for all or a significant portion of a CPAP, but those who want the more modern model may have to make up the difference in price. Price ranges from around 300-1400 US dollars (USD). Additional equipment like masks, hoses, and humidifiers are sold separately, and range in price from about 40-200 US dollars (USD).
Though, at first, adjusting to the CPAP can be difficult, the benefits can ultimately outweigh initial discomfort. Those who have been affected by sleep apnea for much of their life will soon find themselves feeling rested and refreshed. Greater alertness during the day can increase memory, improve job performance, and enhance mood.