Sleep apnea is a recognized disorder that affects anywhere from 2% to 9% of American adults. Various treatments can help alleviate (sometimes eliminate) the effects of obstructive sleep apnea but many sufferers may eventually require the assistance of a positive airway pressure (PAP) machine to enjoy a good night's sleep.
The machine's compressor takes in air and then pumps it to the wearer's nose and mouth via a tube and face mask.
The PAP compressor and tubing are fairly standard in all devices -- but the masks come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There are also different types of PAP masks to choose from and it is important to select the one which is most suitable and comfortable to wear without compromising on its effectiveness.
As one size (or type) of mask does not suit all, the PAP masks are generally sold as a separate item to the PAP device. Purchasing the correct style and type of mask is critical in ensuring the PAP machine is as effective as possible.
Types of PAP Masks
Depending on whether the nose, mouth or both need to be covered there are three basic types of masks to choose from:
Nasal Pillow Mask. Compact and light, a nasal pillow mask is designed to deliver the air stream directly into the wearer's nostrils. This type of mask is best for OSA sufferers who only require a low or moderate air pressure as well as for people who may feel claustrophobic wearing a larger style of mask.
A nasal pillow mask will generally fit into the nostrils and is less obtrusive than other types making it suitable for spectacle wearers or those with a lot of facial hair. Similar to a nasal pillow mask, a nasal cradle mask performs the same function but sits outside the nose and not into the nostrils.
Nasal Mask. A step up from the simple nasal pillow mask is the nasal mask. This covers the nose completely and is usually secured with straps around the back of the head.
This style is most suited for wearers who require medium to high pressure air flow during sleep. More securely attached than the nasal pillow mask, the nasal mask is also better suited to those wearers who tend to shift position a lot while sleeping.
Full Face Mask. Usually recommended for those who breathe through the mouth -- as the full mask covers both nose and mouth. Because of the mask’s size and bulk, some sleep apnea sufferers find them awkward to wear -- but they are highly effective once gotten used to.
While your doctor specifies on your prescription which PAP device you should have the type of mask to be used is down to personal choice -- as well as being based on a sleep expert's, or doctor's, recommendations. Choosing the best type of mask can be a daunting task as there are a myriad of styles to pick from and the number increases regularly thanks to technology and scientific research.
Although PAP therapy is not the only treatment for obstructive sleep apnea it is the most commonly used. PAP devices are not cheap but even the most expensive and latest models can be rendered almost useless if used with an improperly fitting or poorly designed mask. At a workshop organized by the American Thoracic Society several conclusions regarding PAP masks were reached including:
A nasal mask is the most suitable option for the majority of OSA patients.
Nasal masks were generally found to be better fitting than full face masks as these are more prone to allow air to escape around a greater perimeter area.
Some air leakage can be expected from all types of mask but wearers should ensure any mask fits as perfectly as possible to limit such leaks to a minimum.
OSA patients should seek professional advice on the type of mask best suited to his, or her, particular case.
Time and care should be spent when choosing a mask as the efficacy of PAP therapy will be adversely affected by choosing badly.
Full face masks are particularly suitable for patients who breathe predominantly through the mouth during sleep. However, some OSA sufferers complain of discomfort and others say a full face mask affects the ability to breathe properly.
These issues usually resolve themselves over time as the wearer becomes more accustomed to the mask.
In the past, PAP masks were often merely an afterthought and not deemed an important part of a PAP machine or PAP therapy. Masks were often poorly constructed with little thought given to the patient's comfort or how snugly the masks fit.
In many cases, all effectiveness was lost as air leaked around the masks and the pressure necessary to keep the air passages unblocked was lost.
Modern technology has resolved these problems as modern PAP masks are now constructed with more flexible materials -- and the seals around any openings have become as airtight as possible. The cushioning around the nose and/or mouth is pliable and soft but also dense enough to limit leakage to almost zero.
Advantages of PAP Therapy
Not everyone who suffers from obstructive sleep apnea will require PAP therapy, but those that do can expect to benefit in many ways. The first and most obvious benefit is the ability to get a good night's sleep -- but this is extremely important as lack of sleep can have serious medical repercussions.
Proper, quality sleep will also:
- Lead to better heart health
- Improve the overall well-being of diabetics
- Help prevent hearing loss
- Increase energy levels
Sleep apnea is a serious condition that has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, loss of memory and other illnesses.
Getting the right treatment is extremely important and why diagnosis must be done by a medical professional.
Technology has improved the quality and effectiveness of PAP masks immeasurably in recent years and it is now possible to select one which is best suited to personal needs and preferences without losing any of the effectiveness.
If you have questions about masks, our Sleep Care Specialists can help.