How does a CPAP machine work?

Sleep apnoea is a common sleep disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machines have become the gold standard in treating sleep apnoea and improving the quality of sleep for those who suffer from it.

We explain the mechanics of CPAP machines, their components, and how they work to alleviate the symptoms of sleep apnoea.

What is sleep apnoea?

Sleep apnoea is characterised by repeated disruptions in breathing during sleep, often caused by the relaxation and collapse of the upper airway muscles. These interruptions can last for a few seconds to a minute and lead to fragmented sleep, daytime drowsiness and a range of health issues if left untreated.

What is a CPAP machine? 

A CPAP machine is a medical device designed to deliver a continuous flow of pressurised air to the airways of sleep apnoea patients during sleep. 

It operates proactively to prevent lapses in breathing from the moment a person falls asleep. Instead of responding to breathing cessation, the machine provides a continuous flow of air, ensuring uninterrupted breathing throughout the night. By delivering mild air pressure, CPAP machines work to keep the airways open during sleep.

Most CPAP machines come with a ramp feature, allowing for a gradual increase in air pressure over a specified period. This ramp setting starts the delivery of air pressure at a low level, promoting a more comfortable transition into sleep.

As the individual continues to sleep, the CPAP machine gradually increases the air pressure to the appropriate level necessary for preventing sleep apnoea. This steady and continuous airflow effectively maintains open airways, eliminating any pauses in breathing that might otherwise occur.

Types of masks

There are three main types of masks available.

A nasal mask is designed to cover the nose only, providing a secure seal and delivering airflow specifically to the nasal passages.

Nasal pillow masks consist of small silicone tubes that are inserted into the nostrils, supplying the necessary airflow. This type of mask is suitable for individuals who prefer not to wear a mask over their face or nose, offering a lightweight and minimalistic option.

A full face mask covers the mouth and either sits over or underneath the nose. This mask is particularly beneficial for individuals who have difficulty breathing solely through their nose, such as those with chronic allergies or a deviated septum. It ensures a comprehensive seal, delivering airflow to both the nose and mouth simultaneously.

Components of a CPAP machine

  1. Motor: the motor is the core component of the CPAP machine. It generates a controlled airflow by drawing in room air and pressurising it to the prescribed level.
  2. Air filter: CPAP machines feature filters that purify the air by removing dust, allergens and other airborne particles. Clean air is then delivered to the user’s airway.
  3. Humidifier: many CPAP machines include a built-in humidifier to add moisture to the pressurised air, preventing dryness and irritation of the airway. This can enhance comfort during use.
  4. Mask and headgear: different styles of masks, along with adjustable headgear, ensures a secure and comfortable fit, allowing the pressurised air to be delivered effectively.
  5. Tubing: a flexible tube connects the CPAP machine to the mask, carrying the pressurised air from the device to the user’s airway. The tubing is designed to be lightweight and easy to move during sleep.

Potential complications of untreated sleep apnoea

If people do not receive treatment, sleep apnoea can cause some serious complications, such as:

  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • stroke
  • heart disease
  • early death.

If a person experiences the symptoms of sleep apnoea, they should consult a healthcare professional about their treatment options. 

Symptoms of sleep apnoea include:

  • tiredness or sleepiness in the daytime
  • difficulty concentrating
  • slowed reaction times
  • dry mouth
  • headaches
  • sexual dysfunction or low sex drive
  • frequent waking in the night to urinate.

A partner may also notice that a person with sleep apnoea snores loudly, gasps for air when sleeping, and experiences breathing that starts and stops during sleep.

Benefits of using a CPAP 

Using a CPAP machine has several benefits, including:

  • improved sleep quality and reduced daytime sleepiness
  • enhanced cognitive function and increased alertness during the day
  • lowered blood pressure and reduced cardiovascular risks associated with untreated sleep apnea
  • alleviation of symptoms such as snoring, morning headaches, and mood disturbances
  • potential improvement in the quality of life and overall wellbeing.

Possible side-effects of using a CPAP machine

Using a CPAP machine may cause the following side-effects:

  • dry mouth
  • dry eyes
  • congestion
  • runny nose
  • irritation from mask straps
  • nosebleeds.

If a CPAP machine feels uncomfortable, leaks air, or causes side-effects, it’s recommended to talk to a doctor who can adjust the settings or suggest another type of device or mask.

CPAP machines with built-in humidifiers significantly reduce or eliminate the above potential side-effects.

Do you use a CPAP machine? Did you find it hard to get used to? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also read: Sleep apnoea not the end of the world

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Ellie Baxter
Ellie Baxter
Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.
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