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Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA)

Treatment for OSA

On this page, we explain the different, effective treatments available as well as lifestyle changes you can make to improve your symptoms of OSA.

OSA is a long-term condition, and you may need ongoing treatment to control the symptoms. Treatment for OSA focuses on reducing the number of breathing pauses you have when you’re asleep. You should feel less sleepy during the day, have a better quality of life, and reduce your risk of getting health complications and having accidents.

On this page:

Benefits of OSA treatment

People react differently to treatment, but you’re likely to benefit a lot. For example:

  • you’ll have more energy and be less sleepy, so you feel better physically and mentally
  • you’ll start to enjoy things you were finding difficult, such as staying awake to watch a film
  • if your driving was affected by excessive sleepiness, you’ll be safe to drive if you can satisfy DVLA your sleepiness is under control.

If you have a partner, they will also benefit from your treatment. They’ll sleep better too as you will not be snoring, and you will move less in bed. You’ll be more alert during the day, so you can enjoy more quality time together.

Getting used to OSA treatment 

You may take some time to adjust to living with OSA and your equipment. Some people find this easier than others. If you’re struggling with treatment, or if you’re feeling anxious or depressed, talk to your sleep clinic or ring our helpline on 03000 030 555.


Lifestyle changes to treat OSA

You can help to manage the symptoms of OSA yourself by making some changes to the way you live. Reducing the amount of alcohol you drink, maintaining a healthy weight and having good bedtime habits can all make a big difference.

Maintain a healthy weight

Being overweight can affect your breathing. As your body weight increases, so do the number of breathing pauses when you’re asleep. Estimates vary, but more than 60% of people with OSA are overweight.

Losing weight when you’re struggling to get a good nights’ sleep, and dealing with feeling tired during the day, can be difficult. Your GP can support you and give you advice about how to lose weight. They can also help you work out what your healthy weight should be.

Reduce the amount of alcohol you drink

Drinking alcohol is linked with a higher risk of sleep apnoea. So, it’s a good idea to reduce the amount you drink, especially in the evening.

Quit smoking 

Research has suggested that smoking can damage your airways and make them more likely to collapse while you’re asleep.  Stopping smoking is one of the best things you can do for your lungs, and your overall health.

Keep active 

Research has shown that exercise can improve OSA symptoms. As soon as you start to become more active the risks to your health reduce, so increasing your activity levels will be very good for you. We have more detailed information on keeping active with a lung condition, including an exercise handbook and exercise videos.

Keep to good sleep habits

Good sleeping habits and sleep patterns are important to feeling well and happy and are a supplement to other sleep treatments. 

Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day. This helps your brain and internal body clock get used to a set routine.

Keep your bedroom dark and quiet. Most adults need between six and nine hours sleep a night – work out what time you need to wake up, so you can set a regular bedtime.

If you sleep on your back, try sleeping on your side instead to relieve your symptoms.

The NHS has more useful information on how to get to sleep.


Treatments from the sleep clinic

You’re likely to need other treatment as well as making lifestyle changes. 

Mandibular advancement devices (MADs)

MADs are devices you wear in your mouth as you sleep. They’re a dental appliance, and look similar to a gum shield. They’re also called intra-oral devices, mandibular repositioning devices, mandibular advancement splints, mouth guards, oral appliances or dental advice.

MADs bring your lower jaw forward to help keep your upper airway open. They’re effective if you have mild or moderate OSA.

A trained health care professional will make impressions of your upper and lower teeth to make a MAD for you. MADs are designed to keep your airway open as you sleep. There are many different devices available but it’s best to have one made for you by a trained health care professional. If you live in an area that prescribes these devices on the NHS, you’ll be referred to a specialist to make your device. If not, you may have to buy your own.  

It’s essential you have a dental assessment before being measured for this device. This is because to be able to use a MADs successfully, your mouth should be free of dental disease, tooth decay and gum disease. If your teeth or gums aren’t healthy, wearing a MADs will lead to a worsening of the problem.

Getting used to mandibular advancement devices (MADs)

If the device feels uncomfortable on your teeth, get advice from your sleep clinic to make sure it is not causing any damage. You may also find your jaw aches in the morning, but this usually wears off after a while. Oral devices take a little getting used to, so persevere. The device should last about two years before it needs replacing.

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP)

CPAP is a simple machine that blows air through a mask you wear at night. It’s designed to hold your airway open while you’re asleep. It sends air at pressure into your upper airway to stop it collapsing or narrowing. Your sleep clinic or the machine itself will set the pressure for you.

Read more about CPAP machines

Positional modifier

If you have mild or moderate OSA and cannot tolerate CPAP or MADs, you might be given treatment in the form of a positional modifier. This is an intervention used to encourage people to not sleep on their backs. There are different devices available, such as tennis ball technique, lumbar or abdominal binders, and full-length pillows.

This type of treatment is more likely to be effective if you have a particular type of OSA that is affected by your sleep position. People with positional OSA experience more severe symptoms when sleeping on their back, as opposed to on their side. Positional modifiers are unlikely to be effective in people with severe OSA.


Surgery for OSA

Surgery may sometimes be an option for treatment of OSA. Surgery might be an option if you have OSA, large tonsils and a BMI of less than 35 kg/m2. Surgery on the soft tissues at the back of the mouth and top of the airway is used less and less as it is not usually effective.  

If you are severely obese (with a BMI over 40) an operation to help you lose weight, called bariatric surgery, can be very effective.


How a continuous positive airway pressure machine (CPAP) changed my life

Gary lives with obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA). He shares his journey of OSA and how getting a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine changed his life.

“I started to show signs of OSA in my 30s. I remember feeling overwhelmingly tired, constantly yawning and even falling asleep when cutting the grass. At the time I was working seven days a week, so I put it down to being overworked.

In the summer 2015 things went downhill fast. I was falling asleep at work, at home – even getting my hair cut! Plus, my wife had noticed I stopped breathing, with pauses up to and over 30 seconds, while I was sleeping. My symptoms were worsening and badly impacting my wellbeing. The fatigue was overwhelming.

Thankfully, in November 2016 my GP arranged me to have a sleep test and I was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA). 

I saw my diagnosis as a positive step. Now I knew what was wrong, I could take steps to deal with it and hopefully improve my symptoms. Three days after diagnosis I was given a CPAP machine. I count myself lucky as I took to it with few problems. I slept like a baby and as if by magic, the snoring stopped! I had a few teething problems with leaks and learnt very quickly how to minimise them.

After a week of using the CPAP machine, I became aware of just how much OSA has been affecting me. I was already feeling huge benefits and considered the machine a life changer and probably a life saver as well.”

Read Gary’s full story

Next: CPAP machines for OSA

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Last medically reviewed: November 2021. Due for review: November 2024

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.