What is Continuous Positive Airway Pressure?

M. DePietro
M. DePietro
Morning headaches are one common symptom of sleep apnea.
Morning headaches are one common symptom of sleep apnea.

Continuous positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine is a device used to treat people who have problems with breathing. It is primarily used to treat sleep apnea. However, continuous positive airway pressure can also help patients with other breathing problems, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and neuromuscular problems.

In some people, the airway collapses during sleep. This creates an obstruction in the airway, which is often called obstructive sleep apnea. Breathing becomes impaired and oxygen levels decrease in the blood. Other hazards of sleep apnea include morning headaches, fatigue, and an increased chance of cardiac problems.

Continuous positive airway pressure delivers pressure into the lungs to prevent these problems. The pressure helps keep the throat from collapsing during sleep. It also helps expand the lungs and make breathing easier. Oxygen can also be attached to a CPAP machine to improve oxygen levels in the blood.

A sleep study will need to be performed by a sleep technologist prior to using a continuous positive pressure airway machine. During the study, the technologist will monitor the patient’s stages of sleep, heart rate, and oxygen level, as well as watch for abnormalities. Once it is determined CPAP is needed, an appropriate pressure level will be determined by the study. A patient should not change his machine's pressure settings without talking to his doctor first.

CPAP is given through either a nasal mask or nasal prongs worn by the patient. The mask or prongs are attached to tubing, which is attached to the machine. Most machines for home use are small. Usually they are about the size of a shoe box.

Some people may develop side effects when using continuous positive airway pressure. If a nasal CPAP mask is used and does not fit properly, it can cause discomfort. It’s important for patients to be sure the mask fits snuggly, but is not too tight when it is first fitted.

CPAP can also be drying to the nose. When the nose becomes dry the body may respond by producing extra mucus to provide moisture in the nose. This can lead to nasal congestion. A heated humidifier can be attached to the CPAP machine. This provides moisture to the air being delivered from the machine.

Other side effects from using continuous positive airway pressure may include, a headache and air in the stomach. If side effects continue, the pressure on the CPAP may need to be adjusted. This should not be done without consulting your doctor.

Discussion Comments


@MrMoody - It’s best to determine the cause of the problem first. If you are overweight, for example, I’ve heard that this can affect nasal continuous positive airway pressure.

Try losing the weight and try sleeping on your sides. See if that helps before you explore the possibility of a sleep study. Those sleep studies are not cheap from what I’ve heard.


@everetra - I think I have sleep apnea. There are times that I get up in the middle of the night and I literally can’t breathe at all. The only way out of the problem is that I start rubbing my diaphragm frantically and that gets my oxygen flowing again to where I can breathe.

I’ve tried sleeping on my side and that helps a little. I am concerned about the high price of a CPAP machine. But the doctor suggested some alternative CPAP supplies, at least at first.

He said there is this inexpensive device that you can wear on your finger that will measure your oxygen flow at night. It will tell you if you have a sleeping disorder, and then if you do, you can explore options for larger CPAP sleeping machines. You can see what your insurance will pay. It may bring the cost down.


A guy at work was diagnosed with sleep apnea. He couldn’t get any control over it so he submitted to a CPAP sleep study. They hooked him up to these monitors and were able to study his breathing patterns during the evening.

At the conclusion of the study they told him there were several minutes he went without breathing. Honestly I find that hard to believe. Maybe they meant that he wasn’t breathing properly.

At any rate he bought a CPAP machine and it has helped him a lot. It sure is expensive to buy that whole kit, but if you can’t breathe then I think that it’s worth it.


A CPAP machine can be truly life-changing. We all thought that my father was overmedicated for his adult ADD and his bipolar disorder because he seemed so sleepy (he also drinks too much). We also knew that he snored like a freight train and had sleep apnea, but we never had much luck convincing him to see a doctor. It was truly frightening to watch him sleep; he would half-wake up several times a minute, sleep with fits and jerks, and generally look like he might die in his sleep.

All that changed when he got the CPAP for his sleep apnea. Now, when it is working and he uses it, he can sleep a normal seven to eight hours at night and stay awake all day. He used to sleep more like twelve hours and night and sometimes still nap during the day! He has enough energy all of a sudden to play with my children, take them to the park, etc.

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    • Morning headaches are one common symptom of sleep apnea.
      By: 9nong
      Morning headaches are one common symptom of sleep apnea.