If you’ve recently been diagnosed with sleep apnea, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) treatment might look intimidating. The machines are big, the masks look cumbersome, and there are so many different brands of equipment. You may have questions like ‘which is right for me?’ or ‘why would I need a humidifier?’
Over time, you’ll be able to answer these questions yourself and will develop an understanding for what you need for your sleep apnea therapy. Initially, CPAP therapy may be tricky. Like anything else though, your body will adjust to the treatment you’re giving to it, and once everything falls into place, you’ll feel a lot better. To help you get from Point A to Point B, we’ve written up a little primer on everything you’ll need to know about CPAP as you get started.
The CPAP Machines
So you’ve taken the sleep tests, been diagnosed with sleep apnea, and now it’s time to find the right CPAP equipment for you. It can be tough to tell the difference between machines and masks, so to start with, we’re going to break these items down by category. There are subtle differences in machines within their respective category, but we’ll get into those details more a bit later.
Broadly speaking, there are two different kinds of CPAP machines: fixed pressure devices and automatically adjusting machines. Fixed pressure machines are what they sound like. They direct air pressure from the machine through the tube and into your mask at a constant level of pressure throughout the night. The only way to adjust the rate of pressure is to do it yourself: the machine will only operate at the pressure you set.
Nominally these are the more ‘basic’ of the two types of machines, as the automatically adjusting devices offer more features (and are more expensive). For many patients though, fixed pressure machines work just fine, and many of these devices feature most of the settings and customization packages that auto machines incorporate. Examples of good manual machines include the AirSense CPAP, the S9 Elite, and the XT Prime.
Be sure to replace filters in your CPAP machine often
The automatically adjusting machines feature an enhanced algorithm package that adjusts the rate of pressure depending on environmental factors and your recent respiration cycles. If, for example, the machine detects that you are in the midst of an apnea, the machine will automatically raise the rate of pressure until the apnea is over: this is done to open your oxygen passageways wider so that you can get air as quickly as possible. Once the irregular breathing episode is over, the machine will return to your prescribed pressure for the duration of the night (or until you have another apnea).
The primary advantage of automatically adjusting machines is that they are capable of ending apneas sooner than fixed pressure models. These are ideal for patients who experience apneas often throughout the night. Popular auto machines at RespShop include the DS560 from Phillips Respironics, the S9 AutoSet from ResMed, as well as ResMed’s AutoSet For Her, the first CPAP machine designed specifically for women.
For patients with central sleep apnea – as opposed to the far more common obstructive sleep apnea – you’ll need a bi-level machine, of which we carry several. Be careful though: CPAP machines and VPAP/BiPAP devices serve entirely different purposes and should NEVER be used interchangeably.
Once you’ve found your CPAP machine, it’s time to pick out a mask. Like with machines, there are different types of masks that offer different features and drawbacks. The three types are nasal masks, full face masks, and nasal pillow masks. Each type offers something to users, and patients can find plenty of comfortable and intuitive masks in each category. Let’s talk a little bit about the differences in these categories.
The most popular mask is a nasal mask. These feature a cushion that wraps around your nose and nasal bridge, sealing the airway into your nares. These masks are easy to seal and rarely come with headgear that obstructs your vision or touches your face too excessively. Most of these masks are very light and allow you to sleep on your side or on your back. In general, we don’t recommend nasal masks for patients who like to sleep on their chests or for patients with facial hair, as mustaches can impair the quality of your seal. (The seal is vital for proper CPAP therapy: without a quality seal, air from the machine will leak out of the mask and you won’t see any of the benefits from CPAP therapy.)
Nasal pillow masks are popular for similar reasons. They are the least obtrusive of the three masks, as the headgear tends to be light and it doesn’t often attach to any parts of your face. The nasal pillow cushion is intended to rest gently on the inside of your nostrils, helping air flow directly into your nasal passageway. Users who toss and turn may not like nasal masks however: they are very light and are easier to disturb and unbalance than full face or nasal masks. Some patients with facial air also dislike the nasal pillow mask, as thick mustache hairs can again impair the mask’s ability to seal.
The full face mask is larger than the nasal and nasal pillow masks. These masks are intended to press gently against your nasal bridge, under your chin, and along your cheeks. Some patients dislike these because of the many facial contact points, but others like them because they are a little harder to dislodge at night and they work well for patients with facial hair. None of these categories are intrinsically better than any other: it’s all about finding what works best for you and your facial structure.
What About the Other Stuff?
There are many supplies that come with CPAP machines and masks, and for new patients, it’s hard to know exactly what you need. To simplify things a little bit, we’re going to break down some of the more important accessories and supplies that CPAP customers prefer to use during their therapy.
Many patients like to use a humidifier with their CPAP machine. Humidifiers work by warming the air from the machine, allowing you to breathe air at a slightly elevated temperature. Users who experience dry mouth or dry throat after using their CPAP tend to like the humidifier, which largely works to prevent these symptoms. Many patients also feel that the humidified air is relaxing, allowing them to fall asleep easier. Most machines are sold with a humidifier, and maintenance and care of the humidifier is simple. You can also use a heated tube with your machine to ensure that the warmed air stays at a constant temperature.
Filters and cushions are two vital accessories that come with your machine and mask respectively. The filter helps to catch debris floating near your machine, which helps prevent you from breathing in any dust or floating particles in your bedroom. Filters need periodic replacement, but if you take care of them, they should last you several months.
Cushions attach to your mask: they help keep your seal and are the comfortable attachment point between the machine and the mask. Over time, cushions lose their spring, and old cushions won’t seal as well as new ones. Like with filters, you’ll periodically need to replace your cushions to ensure that you’re getting the most out of your therapy. Regular cleaning should allow you to use your cushions for a couple of months, but you’ll want to replace them before they sag too much or become saturated by bacteria.
Many patients also like to use a chinstrap. The chinstrap, when used with a full face mask, helps keep the mask in place and also helps to prevent patients – particularly those new to CPAP therapy – from pulling off their mask in the midst of the night (it happens surprisingly frequently.) Some patients also find that the strap itself is comfortable.
These are just some of the supplies and accessories that you can use to get the most out of your sleep apnea therapy. There are other products – such as cleaners, replacement parts, and other comfort solutions – that experienced CPAP patients rely on, but for now, this should give you a broad overview of some of the basics of CPAP therapy.
If you have any further questions about this post, CPAP, sleep apnea, or anything else we can help you with at RespShop, please reach out to us. We’re available over the phone at 1-866-936-3754 online at Facebook and Twitter, or over email, [email protected]. Get in touch for help with your sleep apnea therapy today!