Over the past few years, the number of adults living with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) has steadily increased. If you’re not familiar, OSA is a sleep-related breathing disorder that impacts one’s ability to breathe during sleep. Across the world, it’s predicted that at least 100 million people have this condition, with 25 million estimated to have OSA just in the United States alone ,.
Alarmingly, it’s also predicted that 80 percent of all sleep apnea patients remain undiagnosed . This statistic is disturbing, especially considering the consequences associated with this common condition. If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to serious health conditions, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and stroke – and it some cases, it can even be fatal.
Why are there so many undiagnosed OSA patients?
The sleep community is worried that the number of undiagnosed OSA patients has consistently remained so high. It is especially concerning since sleep apnea is highly treatable. There are many options out there for patients to consider. When trying to wrap our heads around this health issue, it comes down to analyzing the circumstances that perpetuate a failure to diagnose.
With sleep apnea specifically, one important obstacle for diagnosis is patient fear. Fear not just of the sleep apnea diagnosis itself, but of the treatment options available. Many people have seen or are aware of CPAP devices, the main way sleep apnea is treated, and have decided that it is not for them.
A New Generation of Therapy
Unfortunately, these fears are rooted in past misconceptions of sleep apnea. Because of this, many OSA patients are stopping their care journeys before they even begin. What many people don’t realize is that sleep apnea therapy options have come a long way over the past several decades. Now, there are multiple solutions that have been uniquely designed using a patient-centric approach.
Newer solutions offer improved comfort, ease of use and support increased mobility for sleep apnea patients – all to ensure that patients stay adherent to their treatment plans. Instead of being afraid of treatment, patients need to give themselves a chance to find the best solution for their unique needs.
As with most chronic conditions, there are a million questions that go through a patient’s mind after an initial sleep apnea diagnosis. As sleep experts, it’s our job to work with OSA patients to determine the best treatment plan for both their specific condition and their lifestyle.
Even in patients who do seek a diagnosis, we can face barriers with treatment. Unfortunately, patients can struggle to adhere to some prescribed treatments. This is because some therapies are uncomfortable and interfere with sleep habits.
But sleep apnea therapy has changed.
Not your father’s CPAP
Traditionally, the gold standard for sleep apnea therapy has been Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP). CPAP machines work by sending a constant flow of air pressure to the patient’s throat during sleep. This keeps the airway open and thereby treats the pauses in breath associated with sleep apnea. As an additional benefit, many patients stop snoring, breathe regularly, and get a restful night of sleep with CPAP therapy.
However, people can find it difficult to adjust to sleeping with their CPAP equipment. Patients will sometimes complain about difficulty moving around in their sleep. They struggle with the pressure in their nose and airway. Some even struggle to comfortably watch TV before bed because of their masks.
Thankfully, there are new advancements in sleep technology that are paving the way for new options for more comfortable yet equally reliable treatment. No longer the bulky machines of the past, modern CPAPs, and their accompanying masks are:
- offer greater ease of movement during sleep.
Newer CPAP mask designs even include cushion options for additional comfort. Some have open-face masks that allow for the ability to comfortably wear glasses, read and simply relax in bed. In addition, other options and alternatives continue to present themselves.
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Positional therapy: non-invasive and just as effective
Even with these new innovations that offer more freedom and comfort for CPAP users, sometimes CPAP therapy just doesn’t just fit in with a patient’s lifestyle. For patients living with a certain subset of sleep apnea, there is another option for successful treatment: positional therapy.
Patients with positional OSA primarily experience disruptions in breathing when sleeping on their backs. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 47% of all sleep apnea cases are positional . In the past, these patients have gone to extreme efforts to avoid sleeping on their back – with some resorting to sleeping with a tennis ball sewn into the backs of their pajamas to encourage sleeping on the side.
As an alternative method to CPAP therapy, positional therapy wearables like NightBalance work by encouraging users to remain off their back with gentle vibrations. As one of the most non-invasive sleep apnea therapy methods, positional devices are lightweight, portable and easy to use. Like CPAP, they have also been proven to reduce the snoring that is typically associated with sleep apnea.
As an additional perk, positional therapy devices have demonstrated high adherence rates. A recent study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that short-term adherence with positional sleep apnea devices jumped from 75 to 95% when compared with other sleep apnea therapy methods ,. A clinical trial also found that these positional devices are effective in reducing Apnea–Hypopnea Index (AHI), an indicator of the severity of a patient’s OSA , .
Solutions like positional therapy give me a great sense of hope for the future of sleep apnea diagnosis and treatment. Through years of research, sleep therapy companies have begun to develop patient-centric therapies that are fundamentally changing the way patients live with sleep apnea. Now, people suffering from this chronic condition no longer have to fear diagnosis or treatment plans – they can move forward on a path to living more healthy and restful lives.
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 Heinzer, R. et al, Prevalence and Characteristics of Positional Sleep Apnea in the HypnoLaus Population-based cohort, Sleep Medicine 2018; 48:157-162
 Long-term effectiveness and compliance of positional therapy with the Sleep Position Trainer in the treatment of positional obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. van Maanen JP, de Vries N. SLEEP 2014;37(7):1209-1215.
 Benoist, L., de Ruiter, M., de Lange, J., & De Vries, N. (2017). A randomized, controlled trial of positional therapy versus oral appliance therapy for position-dependent sleep apnea. Sleep medicine, 34, 109-117
 De Ruiter, M. H., Benoist, L. B., De Vries, N., & de Lange, J. (2018). Durability of treatment effects of the Sleep Position Trainer versus oral appliance therapy in positional OSA: 12-month follow-up of a randomized controlled trial. Sleep and Breathing, 22(2), 441-450.
 Eijsvogel, M. M., Ubbink, R., Dekker, J., Oppersma, E., de Jongh, F. H., van der Palen, J., & Brusse-Keizer, M. G. (2015). Sleep position trainer versus tennis ball technique in positional obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. Journal of clinical sleep medicine, 11(02), 139-147.
Editor’s note: Although the author is employed by Philips Sleep and Respiratory Care and they could benefit from this article, we have accepted it for publication because it contains valuable information for our readers. This post has not been sponsored by Philips.