Although millions of Americans suffer from sleep apnea, it has only recently become a well-known condition. Its previous obscurity was due to the fact that it is difficult to diagnose without a relatively modern sleep test, not to mention the fact that its sufferers sleep right through it. Sleep apnea occurs when soft tissue at the back of the throat obscures the airway during sleep, causing repeated temporary breathing stoppages. These frequent breathing obstructions, sometimes several per hour, can cause issues as minor as snoring and fatigue (due to interrupted sleep quality) and as major as heart trouble, due to poor nighttime oxygenation and system stress. Sleep apnea can affect anyone, but some groups particularly at risk include men, elderly individuals, and people who are heavier. Snoring and unexplained fatigue are two signs that may point to sleep apnea.
Once the disorder has been diagnosed, treatments for sleep apnea could include oral devices similar to mouth guards, automated masks worn at night designed to provide pressure on the airways, or even surgery. Depending on the severity of one’s sleep apnea, a change in pillow could also make a difference in the symptoms, and may be a good option to try before exploring more drastic solutions.
The importance of a good pillow
A quality pillow can help symptoms in a few different ways. Some are designed to encourage, or even force, the sleeper to sleep on their side rather than their back. Some sleep apnea sufferers only experience apnea when they sleep on their backs, so this pillow makes side sleeping the only option, and attempts to make that experience comfortable. Pillows designed to aid sleep apnea and snoring can also help by providing an appropriate level of support to keep the head and neck at an angle that can help keep the airway open.
Those who are using CPAP masks to aid their sleep apnea will also likely want to explore options for special pillows. These pillows often allow space for mask-users to sleep on their sides or even stomachs, which can be very difficult for CPAP users. These pillows may also have special features to accommodate the necessary cords that keep the CPAP mask working during the night.
How to Choose the Best Pillow for Sleep Apnea
If you have sleep apnea and are considering a pillow as a treatment option, speak with a doctor first, preferably the one who helped to diagnose your problem. He or she could provide helpful insights that could determine how effective a pillow may be in reducing your symptoms. Since they would have a good idea of your condition’s severity, they can give advice as to whether a more aggressive response should be pursued immediately. If a sleep study was used to diagnose your apnea, the doctor could likely tell you whether you experienced apnea only when on your back. (Or, if you sleep in close quarters with anyone else, they could likely tell you whether the common symptom of snoring occurs mainly on your back, or in all sleeping positions.) This information will help you decide whether a pillow that facilitates side sleeping may be helpful.
In addition to knowing about your condition, you also want to get a good idea of your sleeping habits. How often do you actually sleep on your side? Your back? Your stomach? Note how you wake up each morning (or during the night) to get an idea of what position you gravitate towards.
Armed with this information, you can begin to research which pillow would be best for you. The FDA has approved one pillow for the treatment of snoring and mild sleep apnea, so that may be a good place to start. Pillows marketed as “anti-snore” are worth looking into as well, since the causes of snoring are similar to, when not synonymous with, sleep apnea. Pillows that offer extra support or firmness could be considered as well, since these could help keep your head at an angle more conducive to a clear airway. Of course, online reviews are plentiful, and you can likely gain information about what type of sleep apnea sufferers found each product successful for their needs.
Are you using a CPAP mask?
Finally, if you are using a CPAP mask, a search for CPAP pillows will turn up several products designed for use with this device. If you are new to using a CPAP, you may want to try it for several days before purchasing a pillow to help you learn what issues you want your pillow to help solve. For example, you may find that you turn to your side more often than you thought, so you may need a pillow that is especially designed to accommodate side sleeping in a mask. If you find that the cord is bothersome, you can look for a pillow designed to hold the cord.
Getting to know your individual condition and your own sleeping habits are key to finding the sleep apnea pillow that will give you a good night’s rest.