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Positional therapy for sleep apnea – does it work? Lack of sleep will cause a host of short and long-term health risks, so finding the right treatment is imperative for those who suffer from sleeping disorders.
For years, the traditional means of treating sleep apnea was by CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, which involves the use of a mask worn during sleep. This mask ventilates the airway so that individuals can breathe smoothly and sleep soundly the entire night.
However, many people were unsatisfied with this treatment because of its sizeable inconvenience, so many patients suffering from sleep apnea did without. Then new studies started to appear. These new studies introduced a new, revolutionary treatment method called positional therapy.
What Is Positional Therapy for Sleep Apnea?
Positional therapy is an approach to treat mild-to-moderate positional obstructive sleep apnea (positional OSA) patients by understanding the causes behind the disorder. Sleep apnea has several causations, but positional therapy is ONLY effective in treating those who have positional sleep apnea.
Positional obstructive sleep apnea occurs when airways become blocked as the back part of the tongue folds into the throat; this typically happens when sleeping on the back, or sleeping in a flat orientation. Gravity will pull the tongue and cause it to obstruct the flow of air, making it hard to breathe normally.
The basic cause of this disorder is similar to the cause of snoring, which explains why some peoples’ conditions worsen from snoring to mild sleep apnea, and from mild sleep apnea to severe sleep apnea.
To be a strong candidate for positional therapy, a patient must have positional obstructive sleep apnea. Bed partners will generally be able to notice the difference in their partners when sleeping on their side instead of sleeping on their back; individuals with mild OSA may snore, or awaken abruptly, when sleeping on their back, but can manage to get an uninterrupted night’s sleep if on their sides. Using a sleep study report, physicians will diagnose positional sleep apnea by looking at :
- Levels of oxygen that the body intakes when sleeping flat, as opposed to sleeping reclined or on the sides.
- Number of events (or number of times the patient misses a breath) when sleeping flat compared to being reclined or on the sides.
- Other factors that potentially influence breathing such as COPD, RLS, PLMD, etc.
The goal behind positional therapy is to elicit patients to sleep on their sides, and not on their back. The medical standard used to accomplish this is the bumper belt.
The bumper belt is made of an elastic rubber and wraps around the torso and over the shoulders, resembling a belt. Inflatable “bumpers” are attached to either the backside of the belt, the front side of the belt, or both sides.
These bumpers protrude several inches, making it virtually impossible to sleep on the back or the stomach. Over 16,000 physicians have prescribed bumper belts to treat positional OSA and its effectiveness is undeniable.
Other tools and methods are used for positional therapy, too. A posture alarm is programmed to alert sleepers whenever they have turned over onto their back or stomach.
Positional therapy for sleep apnea goes beyond just sleeping on the side, but studies also prove that elevation of the head or the feet will limit the effects of obstructive sleep apnea. Homemade contraptions using tennis balls, socks, and other common household items can function as tools that promote side sleeping.
Special pillows are designed to elevate the head at 30 degrees above the body plane. Sleeping in a reclined chair, so that the feet are positioned 60 degrees below the body plane, is another option. By positioning the body in these specific angles, the airways reopen so that the continuity of breathing is unhindered.
Many people prefer positional therapy to the alternative treatments. Masks are expensive and insurance may not always cover the costs. They are also uncomfortable, loud, and are inconvenient to lag around on vacations or when traveling.
Though surgeries are performed for severe cases of sleep apnea, it has been found to be less effective than the other leading routes of treatment. Surgeries are invasive, expensive, and would not be the best option for someone with mild-to-moderate positional OSA.
Positional therapy for sleep apnea is extremely affordable, easy to get used to, noninvasive or discomforting, and provides great results compared to alternative sleep apnea treatments. In fact, a 3-month study with 13 individuals showed that positional therapy was as an effective treatment as any of the other leading treatment options.
Positional therapy is part of an overall treatment plan, which usually involves certain lifestyle changes. Lifestyle changes that can increase the effectiveness of positional therapy include :
- Regular exercise routines that involve heart and lung workouts to improve breathing
- Weight loss with the adoption of a healthy, low-fat diet
- Avoiding harmful substances that provoke positional OSA (alcohol, tobacco, etc.)
It is important to consult with a physician if you suspect you are suffering from positional obstructive sleep apnea. Discuss positional therapy and other treatment options before attempting home remedies, as home remedies are not as effective as prescription therapies