For treatment of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), continuous positive airway pressure, commonly known as CPAP, is the standard treatment. The CPAP, an air pressure device with a mask worn during sleep, is very (99%) effective at maintaining airflow and reducing or eliminating the interrupted breathing that is caused by sleep apnea. In people with OSA, these episodic pauses in breathing—called apneas and hypopneas—cause disruptions to sleep and lower oxygen levels in the bloodstream. Sleep apnea is associated with a number of cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure, stroke, atrial fibrillation, and congestive heart failure. OSA is also linked to type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders.
The biggest challenge to CPAP’s success in treating sleep apnea has been compliance with treatment - wearing the mask. Patients are often uncomfortable using the device, especially at the beginning of treatment, and this reluctance can lead to inconsistent use, or abandonment of the therapy altogether.
New research indicates that some OSA patients may have another treatment option. Researchers at The Netherlands’ University of Groningen compared treatment outcomes for OSA patients using CPAP and oral appliance therapy. They found oral appliance therapy to be an effective alternative to CPAP for treating sleep apnea. Oral appliance therapy involves a dental device similar to a retainer or a mouth guard. Worn during sleep, this device works to keep the airway open, helping to prevent the collapse of the tongue and other muscles at the back of the throat that restrict breathing.
Researchers conducted a 2-year follow up to a clinical trial that compared the effectiveness of CPAP and oral appliance therapy. During the two-year study period, researchers assessed the treatment progress of 103 patients with OSA. They used several standard measurements to track patients’ progress in treatment, including polysomnography and a self-reported sleepiness scale. The severity of OSA is categorized by the frequency of episodes of interrupted breathing, as ranked on a scale known as the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI). For the purpose of this study, researchers defined “successful” treatment as a reduction of AHI to less than 5 episodes per hour, or a reduction of at least 50% from subjects’ initial AHI readings. Their analysis found that oral appliance therapy is an effective alternative to CPAP for some sleep apnea patients:
Researchers concluded that oral appliance therapy was a viable treatment option for patients with mild to moderate sleep apnea. For severe cases of OSA, researchers recommend CPAP as they best treatment option. Other studies have also found oral appliance therapy works effectively to improve sleep apnea:
Compliance has long been an issue with CPAP therapy. Intermittent and inconsistent use of the device undermines its effectiveness. To receive the full benefits of CPAP therapy, it must be used consistently—and for many patients, that has proved difficult. Still, there’s little question that when used correctly and consistently, CPAP can be tremendously effective in treating obstructive sleep apnea, especially severe cases. For people with severe OSA, CPAP will likely remain the standard treatment.
But broadening treatment options for less severe sleep apnea is very good news. People with mild and moderate OSA—especially those who have difficulty with CPAP—may consider speaking with their physician about using oral appliance therapy to manage their condition.
What’s most important is finding the right treatment and sticking with it. Sleep apnea is a serious health condition. Fortunately, treatments used correctly—whether CPAP or oral appliance—can significantly improve your sleep and your general health.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor®