What Exactly Does a CPAP Machine Do?

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy is a leading treatment for sleep apnea. Millions of people are diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, the most common form of the disorder. 

This disorder sees the upper airways collapse when asleep, causing breathing cessations that prompts the brain to wake the body for air. People can awake gasping for breath, and as this can happen many times every hour it often leads to excessive daytime fatigue.

What Is a CPAP Machine?

A CPAP machine is designed to keep the upper airways open for someone with sleep apnea while they sleep. It is the machine most commonly prescribed to help treat obstructive sleep apnea. 

The machine delivers pressurized air through a tube connected to a mask worn overnight to keep the airways clear and prevent their collapse. 

By preventing the upper airways from collapsing, you remove the frequent arousals from sleep caused by cessations to breathing. This ensures a better night’s sleep and reduces the risk of the health complications from sleep deprivation caused by sleep apnea.

Components of a CPAP Machine

The machine itself is fairly compact and will sit on a bedside table, and contains a motor within the base. Modern machines are quiet compared to older models. There are some components that are standard to all models of machines.

  • cushioned mask
  • tube which connects to the machine at one end and the mask at the other.
  • filters
  • headgear frame
  • straps which you can adjust for the best fit

Many CPAP machines also come with a humidifier. This is a useful addition for those who find they often have a dry nose or mouth in the morning after using the machine, as it moistens the air you inhale.

Choosing a Mask

A correctly fitting mask is essential for the effectiveness of the treatment, ensuring the pressurized air does not leak out from the mask cushion or nasal pillow. 

There are three main types of masks, nasal pillow, nasal cushion, and a full-face mask. Your Sleep Doctor or DME provider will work with you to ensure you wear the one most suited to you.

  • Full face mask – fits over both the nose and mouth, often the better choice for those who breathe through their mouth when they sleep.
  • Nasal mask – covers just the nose and can be a good option if you move around a lot during the night.
  • Nasal pillow mask – either fits over the nostrils or uses prongs which fit into the nostrils, and is a handy option for those whose facial hair makes it difficult for other mask types to fit well.

Types of Machines

CPAP is the most commonly used sleep apnea machine and is programmed with a single pressure setting, one determined through a sleep study. The purpose is to set a pressure setting which will keep the airways open as you sleep. 

However, some people may struggle with a continuous supply of air set at one pressure setting from the off. In these instances, there are a couple of machines which provide an alternative.

  • Bi-level positive airway pressure (Bi-PAP) machines offer two pressure settings, one for inhaling and one for exhaling. Some people can find it difficult to tolerate a continuous stream of pressurized air. 

Bi-PAP eases this problem by delivering a higher air pressure setting when inhaling, and a lower pressure setting when exhaling. This can deliver a more comfortable treatment experience for some people.

  • Auto-titrating positive airway pressure (APAP) machines automatically adjusts the pressure of the air being supplied depending on the user’s breathing patterns. The pressure settings will change if your sleeping position or any medication taken alters your breathing during the course of the night.

How Does a CPAP Machine Work?

The device set-up is fairly straightforward, and soon you can return to full nights of uninterrupted sleep. You should always read the manual your machine comes with, but there are some basics of how to set up the device.

  1. Ensure you place the machine where it will be stable while giving you access to the necessary parts such as power button, filter container and humidifier. An accessible power outlet is important, as is the position of the machine allowing the tube to reach the head of the bed.
  2. The tube needs to be connected to both the mask and the device using the appropriate component connectors.
  3. Use distilled water to fill the humidifier if your machine has one, not exceeding any max line. Distilled water prevents impurities from tap water and any mineral build-up which can impede on the effectiveness of the machine.
  4. The machine should now be ready to power on. It is also time to put on your cushioned mask.

Once powered up, the machine draws in air from the room before passing it through a filter. You do not have to worry about the pressure setting as this will have been programmed into the device by a sleep professional.

Purified air is then streamed down the tube and inhaled through the mask which sits snug, but comfortably, around the nose, mouth or both. Air should not escape providing you have a correctly fitting mask. 

The steady stream of pressurized air prevents the airways from becoming blocked, ensuring no sudden drops in blood oxygen levels.

Wearing a mask and sleeping while inhaling pressurized air can take a little time for some people to adapt. You can wear the mask around the house to get used to the feel on your face, particularly if you have concerns over potential claustrophobia issues.

Final Thoughts

Adhering to your treatment plan is crucial to reducing or eliminating your sleep apnea symptoms. This also reduces the risk of health problems such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes linked to the sleep disorder. 

If you have any questions or concerns about your CPAP machine or mask do not hesitate to consult with your doctor.