What to Look for in a Sleep Apnea Pillow
Sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that temporarily stops your breathing as you sleep, can seem like a scary condition– many adults with sleep apnea aren’t even aware that they have it. Luckily, this sleep disorder, if diagnosed, can be treated with a special type of medical device known as a CPAP machine. In addition, there is another type of aid that can improve your head position while you sleep and make it comfortable for you to sleep with a CPAP mask, which may initially feel complicated with such a large device. With a sleep apnea pillow, it doesn’t need to be.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a common, but dangerous, sleep disorder if left untreated. There are actually different types of sleep apnea, each with their own individual causes and symptoms, including obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of this disorder. This occurs when the muscles at the back of your throat relax, causing your airway to close in. When you have this disorder, you actually wake up multiple times per night without realizing it. Because your airways close, there is less oxygen supply available in your blood, which you brain is able to sense. It urgently wakes you up from sleep to take in more oxygen because then your airways open again, and then you fall back asleep. This happens so quickly that you don’t realize it. You may make choking or gasping sounds, and obstructive sleep apnea prevents you from reaching a healthy level of deep sleep. Because of this, one of the main symptoms is feeling tired during the day even though you think you are sleeping a lot at night.
Central Sleep Apnea
This apnea is due to a neurological problem. It is caused by your brain not sending signals throughout your body reminding it to breathe. This is less common than obstructive sleep apnea, and you may find yourself experiencing shortness of breath or trouble falling asleep with central sleep apnea.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
The symptoms overlap in both types of sleep apneas for the most part. They include snoring, gasping, dry mouth, hypersomnia or excessive daytime sleepiness, headaches, difficulty concentrating, trouble staying asleep, or others letting you know that they notice you stop breathing in your sleep. This condition can be difficult to diagnose since symptoms may only happen when you are asleep and unaware.
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Sleep Apnea Complications
On its own, sleep apnea is already a potentially dangerous disorder. However, it can also be a symptom of or play a part in other harmful conditions.
Feeling extra tired during the day? Fatigue is a serious symptom that can impact your daily life and is common in sleep apnea patients. If you are in school, your grades may be worsening, and you may find yourself getting irritated more easily at work as your performance decreases as well. With sleep apnea, sleeping more won’t fix fatigue because your episodes are preventing you from reaching deep sleep.
Surgeries and Anesthetic
Because surgery requires you to be in an upright position on your back, and an anesthetic may slow your breathing, if you have sleep apnea, you may be at a higher risk for surgery and anesthetic complications. It is important to always discuss your apnea with your doctor when considering surgical procedures and anesthetic.
Having sleep apnea also puts you at risk of developing other serious conditions. These include type 2 diabetes (insulin resistance), liver problems, metabolic syndromes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke.
Who is at Risk?
People of any age and gender can develop sleep apnea. However, it is significantly more common in males and those middle-aged and older. Using other medications, such as narcotics, may also increase the risk. People who have previously suffered a stroke may develop central sleep apnea due to neurological problems. Lastly, having a history of heart problems can increase your risk.
What is a Sleep Apnea Pillow?
A sleep apnea pillow has multiple purposes, all of which achieve the same goal: comforting and alleviating the symptoms of sleep apnea. They are shaped in different ways, some for if you are a side sleeper, and others if you’re a back sleeper. This is to support the natural shape of your neck and spine while you sleep so that you don’t end up in any strange positions that could trigger your sleep apnea or affect your breathing. They are typically made of softer materials like memory foam or down that can morph into your natural sleep position so you will find yourself moving around less. Certain sleep apnea pillows are made specifically for those who use a CPAP machine, and the pillow is shaped like a rectangle or square that is ‘cinched’ in from the corners to help with comfort while wearing a CPAP.
Types of Sleep Apnea Pillows
These pillows are designed to relieve neck tension; but they don’t need to help just sleep apnea! Have you ever woken up with a stiff neck or pain on one side when you turn your head? Cervical pillows can improve the quality of sleep in anyone who regularly experiences neck pressure problems after and during sleep. For individuals suffering with sleep apnea, relieving tension in your neck in turn alleviates symptoms by relieving any head strain and keeping your airways open. In fact, a national study was conducted to scientifically test the actual effects of cervical pillows on sleep apnea patients with different levels of the disorder. After the study was conducted, scientists measured their symptoms and discovered that the pillow showed improvement. A cervical pillow keeps your spine and neck alignment straight throughout your body. It resembles the rectangular shape of a normal pillow, but in the center there is a ramp-like design and a dimple in the center that is meant to hold your neck and head comfortably instead of the awkward jump in height from shoulders to head when using a traditional rectangular pillow.
A wedge pillow has a similar design to the ‘ramp’ or wedge-like center of a cervical pillow, but instead, the entirety of the pillow is wedge shaped. The shallowest part of the wedge is where you rest your neck, and your head rests comfortably as the height gradually increases towards the center of the pillow. This pillow is also not just intended for a sleeper with apnea– it can help get rid of snoring in anyone by clearing your airways and keeping your posture and sleeping position upright. This is the best pillow option for those who have mild sleep apnea and want to retain the flat feeling of a normal pillow but still benefit from the alignment change.
Contour pillows also serve a variety of purposes besides sleep apnea and are popular among people with pain or joint issues. A contour pillow is made of memory foam and is shaped based on the body part it is intended for. There are contour pillows for your whole body known as a body pillow, and some only for legs, head, or neck. It supports your desired sleeping position and reduces any tensions. Contour pillows have a specific kind of ‘contour’, shaped in a concave design that supports your head and neck. It prevents sore muscles, provides comfort, reduces joint pain, corrects alignment of the neck and back for clearer airways, and prevents snoring. A contour pillow for your head may look like a pillow with a low center and elevated edges that helps keep your head close to one spot comfortably so that you don’t move around at night into a position that can trigger sleep apnea.
A CPAP pillow is a little different from the other two as it is designed specifically for those using a CPAP machine. This pillow has a very cinched shape and has many dips throughout the fabric to accommodate the CPAP device. You can purchase different CPAP pillows based on which way you sleep: on your side, back, or stomach. A CPAP pillow is designed for those who sleep on their side or stomach, because sleeping on your back may cause more sleep apnea episodes. If you are new to using a CPAP machine and find yourself uncomfortable with the mask, a CPAP pillow may be the perfect way to ease you into it. The best CPAP pillow will have ‘cutouts’ on opposite sides to give room for the mask/hose, a curved bottom for the alignment of shoulders, and an indent in the center for your neck like the one in a cervical pillow.
Sleep Apnea Pillow Materials
As mentioned above, sleep apnea pillows are made of higher quality materials than your standard pillow for maximum comfort. Most sleep apnea pillows are made of memory foam, although there are some made of down.
Memory Foam Pillows
Memory foam was initially developed by NASA and then adapted for medical purposes before people discovered they wanted the material in their mattresses, pillows, and even shoes as well. The original material could be found in spaceship seat cushions. It is a shock-absorbing fabric is made of a polymer called polyurethane with additives. The material also relieves pressure and reacts to it. When you touch a memory foam pillow, a prolonged press will leave a mark in the shape of where you touched it that will slowly return to the original shape after. However, if you try to apply lots of force quickly, the material will actually mold more slowly. It’s similar to quicksand in the sense that it very slowly molds and arises, and it’s meant to be used for comfort– you aren’t supposed to put effort into changing it yourself.
This means that when you use a sleep apnea, the pillow slowly molds itself to fit your neck and head comfortably according to its natural curvature and posture. You can also purchase memory foam mattresses that mold to your body’s sleeping position. Today, memory foam pillows and mattresses are some of the most widely appreciated must-haves in every bedroom.
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Down is the term used to describe real goose/duck feathers used to stuff some pillows and comforters, as well as duvet inserts. It is incredibly soft, light, and fluffy, as well as long-lasting and breathable. The actual feather is taken from the undercoat of swans, geese, and ducks. It’s important not to get this confused with down-alternative, which is a synthetic material. Down alternative is made of polyester microfiber and mimics the soft feel of down but at a more affordable price. People who are allergic to traditional down may also opt for a down alternative filling. For example, this PlushComfort sleep apnea pillow by Sleep Number is made using down-alternative microfiber, and comes in three different shapes. For those with sleep apnea, a soft down filled sleep apnea pillow can help maintain comfort and coolness at night to make falling and staying asleep easier. However, most sleep apnea pillows are made of memory foam, which is generally recommended against down for this disorder.
Science Behind Sleep Apnea Pillows
Sleep apnea pillows are backed by more than just personal testimonials. A medical study conducted on individuals with mild, moderate, and severe obstructive sleep apnea showed to improve snoring and oxygen denaturation, as well as other medical stats measured, among those with mild and moderate apnea. The group was given a positional anti snore pillow to try out for the experiment.
Other Options for Sleep Apnea
While a CPAP machine or other device provided by a medical professional is what may be necessary to manage your sleep apnea, there are more options in addition to sleep apnea pillows that can help alleviate your symptoms. Picking the right mattress is a good next step. People with sleep apnea may want to invest in either a memory foam mattress, adjustable mattress, or a hybrid mattress. A memory foam mattress uses the same material as a memory foam pillow. An adjustable mattress is electronic, and with the push of a button on the mattress or remote control, you can adjust the height of your head, knees, and feet until you find a position that will relax your neck and allow you to breathe easily. Some adjustable mattresses also have built-in massages and temperature control which can be helpful for people with sleep apnea due to difficulty falling or staying asleep.
Not Sure If You’ll Like Your Pillow?
There’s no need to worry about not liking the sleep apnea pillow you bought. Whether you can’t grow accustomed to the shape, elevation change, or material, sometimes it would be nice to be able to ‘test’ out the product before purchasing it. Luckily, there is a way to do this known as a ‘sleep trial.’ Some brands and retailers will allow you to keep your pillow for a sleep trial, similar to a money back guarantee, for about 30 nights on average. If you are unsatisfied with the product, you can simply return it within the given period and you can receive a refund. Check with the individual product to see if it offers this trial period. For example, this wedge pillow by Helix is made of gel memory foam and boasts a 100 day sleep trial period. With this, there should be no reason as to why you’d be hesitant to give sleep apnea pillows a try.
Sleep apnea is a disorder that affects about 25 percent of all adults. Many cases go undiagnosed with this potentially dangerous disorder. In obstructive sleep apnea, (the more common type), your airways become blocked or narrowed in your sleep which causes your breathing to stop for short periods of time. Your brain senses this and immediately wakes you up, which can result in sudden gasping for air. This all happens so fast that you are unaware of these sleep-wake episodes at all, but may feel tired during the day due to a lack of deep sleep. Snoring is also an indicator of sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is treated with a CPAP machine, a special device that gives you a stable air supply while you sleep. However, this device can be uncomfortable for many– a long tube and mask strapped to your nose and mouth. To alleviate sleep apnea symptoms and provide comfort for those with (or without) a CPAP machine, many opt for a sleep apnea pillow. Sleep apnea pillows arrive in many different styles including a contour, CPAP, cervical, or wedge pillow, and are typically made of memory foam. Their job is to correctly align your neck, back, and head to keep your airways open and relieve any pressure. They help with snoring and joint pain as well, and also position your head and body correctly to avoid triggering apnea episodes. Many brands offer ‘sleep trials’ where you can try out the pillow for a certain period of time and if you find that it isn’t suitable for you, you can return it for a full refund. If you’ve been looking for a comfortable sleep apnea solution or pillow upgrade, there’s nothing to lose when making the decision to invest in your choice of best pillow for sleep apnea.