Does sleep apnea go away? The answer is no, although it is a common question among people with a sleep apnea diagnosis. While there is no cure for this chronic condition, there are treatments and lifestyle changes that can reduce your sleep apnea symptoms.
Losing weight, for example, can lower the risk of sleep apnea due to obesity. Or, surgeries including tonsillectomy can be done in both children and adults, with some success noted particularly when treating kids.
This article will help you to understand the underlying causes of sleep apnea and the changes you can make to reduce your risk factors. It also discusses what may happen if you leave sleep apnea untreated and what that means for a long-term prognosis.
Table of Contents
What Causes Sleep Apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when any part of the airway from the tip of the nose to the lungs collapses during sleep and disrupts breathing. As such, it is often due to a person’s underlying anatomy.
Chronic snoring leads to vibration of the airway and damage. This may contribute to swelling that makes the airway narrow. Nerve receptors may become less responsive, and the muscles may not be able to keep sufficient tone to support the airway.
Other causes that contribute to the development of sleep apnea may include:
- Weight gain, especially when it leads to a large neck
- Sleeping on your back, which allows the tongue to fall back into the airway
- The use of alcohol, especially in the few hours prior to sleep
Because these factors contribute to structural changes in the airway anatomy, they lead to a chronic condition that, in most cases, can be treated but not cured.
Is Sleep Apnea Caused by Weight?
Obesity is the primary risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea, and losing weight can improve sleep apnea symptoms. Research has found that obese people who lose weight will even reduce their tongue size, thereby reducing this airway complication. That said, "skinny" people can have sleep apnea and its causes in thin people may be even more difficult to treat.
Can Sleep Apnea Go Away?
For the most part, sleep apnea is a chronic condition that does not go away. Human anatomy tends to remain fixed, especially after adolescence has ended.
However, sleep apnea in children may be successfully and definitively treated. Some of the options include:
Teenagers and adults have other surgical options. The most successful is jaw advancement surgery. This procedure, also called maxillo-mandibular advancement, can be highly effective, resolving sleep apnea in upwards of 80% of people.
It is a major surgery used to restructure the jawbones, fix them in place (typically with titanium screws and plates), and change the facial profile to improve the airway.
Other surgeries can also be used to change the anatomy, but, in general, these procedures are less effective. These options include:
- Surgery on the soft palate, such as the uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP)
- Septoplasty, to repair a deviated septum
- Radiofrequency ablation of the nasal turbinates, to relieve nasal congestion and obstruction
- Tongue surgery, with movement of the tongue anchors (called hyoid advancement)
What Are the Chances of Dying From Sleep Apnea?
If you don't treat your sleep apnea, it can lead to serious and potentially life-threatening conditions. Among them are cardiac (heart) conditions, diabetes, and high blood pressure. As a result, sleep apnea can shorten your life span, with some 38,000 people dying in the U.S. each year from sleep apnea-related heart disease alone.
Reducing Sleep Apnea Risk Factors
There are lifestyle changes and medications that can help with your sleep apnea. Losing weight, quitting smoking, and becoming more active through exercise all can help.
Breathing exercises may improve your airway muscle tone. Some studies report positive effects of circular breathing techniques used to play the didgeridoo, as well as tongue strengthening exercises called myofunctional therapy. However, results are mixed and more research is needed.
Keeping the nasal passages open by treating allergies with nasal steroids can also be helpful. Medications that may offer benefits include:
Sleeping on your side, or raising the head of the bed to 30 to 45 degrees, may also be useful.
Still, for many people, the standard of care for sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). This constant flow of air keeps the airway open and prevents its collapse. Much like a pair of glasses, it only works when it is used, but it can be highly effective for those who can tolerate it.
There is no real cure for sleep apnea, although surgical treatment in children (whose bodies are still growing) often delivers positive results.
Because adults live with permanent airway anatomy, the changes caused by sleep apnea require other therapies and interventions. Medication, surgery, and CPAP treatment are all options. There also are a number of lifestyle changes, like losing weight, that can improve sleep apnea symptoms.
Some risk factors, such as age or the onset of menopause in biological females, can't be changed but others can. Contact your healthcare provider about symptoms if you have sleep apnea concerns.
A Word From Verywell
A sleep specialist is trained to assess and diagnose obstructive sleep apnea and other sleep-related disorders. Your healthcare provider can help you to find one, and to learn more about sleep apnea treatment options.