COPD, Sleep Apnea, and CPAP Machines


Cindy Kuzma

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Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is the most common sleep-related breathing disorder. It occurs when upper airway soft tissues collapse and you stop breathing while sleeping. In addition to the bothersome side effects of snoring and daytime sleepiness, it can raise your risk for heart disease. If you have sleep apnea along with COPD, the risk to your heart and your health is exponentially higher. 

Fortunately, a machine designed to treat sleep apnea may also help your COPD. A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device uses gentle pressure to keep your airways open. According to a new study, people with both COPD and sleep apnea who use CPAP at night run less risk of dying of their diseases.

A Dangerous Overlap

Often, a blockage or collapse in your upper airway causes sleep apnea. About 10% to 20% of people with sleep apnea have COPD, and about 1% of all Americans have both conditions. Health care providers call this “the overlap syndrome.”

Left untreated, sleep apnea increases your risk for high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and diabetes. You’re already at higher risk for heart disease if you have COPD. If you have the overlap syndrome, the two conditions interact and increase your risk of dying from heart disease even more.

How CPAP Helps Your Lungs

That’s where the CPAP device comes in. To use it, you put a mask over your nose and possibly your mouth, as well. A tube connects the mask to a machine that blows air with a fan. This flowing air pushes your tongue forward and opens your throat so you can breathe easier.

CPAP is the most common treatment for sleep apnea, and it may also provide benefits to those with COPD. By restoring your blood oxygen levels at night, CPAP can actually slow down the inflammatory processes of COPD that damage your lungs.

What’s more, using a CPAP machine may reduce the amount of work your breathing muscles need to do on their own. It also can prevent your lungs from overinflating. This is a common occurrence in people with COPD that makes breathing more difficult. As a result of using CPAP, you might be able to walk more or otherwise be more active during the day. This makes your life easier, and it can also improve your lungs and overall health.

Ask Your Health Care Provider About CPAP

If you have COPD, talk with your health care provider about whether a CPAP machine could help you. Tell him or her if you have any symptoms of sleep apnea, including:

  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Loud, chronic snoring, especially with pauses in breathing
  • Choking or gasping during the night
  • Morning headaches, dry mouth, or sore throat
  • Mood swings or personality changes
  • A CPAP device won’t cure sleep apnea or COPD. You’ll have to wear it whenever you sleep, even during naps. But doing so can provide benefits that last long into the daylight hours.

Key Takeaways

  • About 10% to 20% of people with sleep apnea have COPD, called “the overlap syndrome.” The two conditions can interact and increase your risk of dying from heart disease.
  • According to a new study, people with both COPD and sleep apnea who use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device at night run less risk of dying from their diseases.
  • Using a CPAP machine at night may enable you to be more active during the day.
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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Jan 16, 2018

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Medical References

  1. Sleep Apnea | CPAP Devices for Sleep Apnea. American Academy of Family Physicians.
  2. What Is COPD? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. National Institutes of Health.
  3. What Is Sleep Apnea? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. National Institutes of Health.
  4. Lopes AJ, et al. CPAP Decreases Lung Hyperinflation in Patients With Stable COPD. Respiratory Care. 2011;56(8):1164-9.
  5. Stanchina ML, et al. Impact of CPAP Use and Age on Mortality in Patients with Combined COPD and Obstructive Sleep Apnea: The Overlap Syndrome. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. 2013;9 (8):767-72.
  6. Nural S, et al. Inflammatory Processes and Effects of Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) in Overlap Syndrome. Inflammation. 2013; 36(1):66-74.
  7. Wang T, et al. Nocturnal CPAP improves walking capacity in COPD patients with obstructive sleep apnea. Respiratory Research. 2013;14(1):1-9. 
  8. Lee R and McNicholas WT. Obstructive sleep apnea in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients. Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine. 2011;17(2):79-83.

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