Using CPAP, a Sleep Apnea Treatment, for COPD

man with cpap mask

What Is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of lung conditions that include chronic bronchitis and emphysema. These are chronic conditions that make breathing difficult. They can also lead to coughing, chest discomfort, and other symptoms. COPD is a progressive disease, which means it only gets worse over time. There’s no cure for COPD, but there are several types of treatments that can slow the progression and manage symptoms.

Maintaining healthy levels of oxygen in your bloodstream is necessary for brain function and the health of all your organs, muscles, and tissue. If you have a COPD, which is usually the result of long-term smoking, it means that you have  less oxygen circulating throughout your body. The disease may be the result of damage to the tiny air sacs in the lungs or to the airways that deliver air breathed in through the nose and mouth down to the lungs. COPD may also be the result of a thickening of the walls of your airways or to the excessive mucus production in the airways, clogging the path of air to the lungs.

While oxygen therapy, medications, and even surgery can have the biggest impact on COPDs, a treatment usually prescribed for people with a common sleep ailment may be helpful for COPD patients, too. The treatment is called continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy. It involves the use of a small bedside machine that pumps air through a tube and into a mask that’s worn over your nose and mouth while you sleep. It’s similar to the oxygen therapy many COPD patients use during the day.

CPAP and Sleep

CPAP is used primarily for people with sleep apnea, a condition that causes you to stop breathing temporarily or gasp for breath while sleeping. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form of sleep apnea. It results when your airway becomes blocked while you sleep as a result of muscles relaxing in the back of the throat. Large tonsils and extra fat around the neck may be to blame, though plenty of thin people without their tonsils can develop OSA.

There are several types of treatment for sleep apnea, but CPAP is usually considered the best option for many OSA patients, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. The machines are programmed to run for a set number of hours at a pressure that is comfortable, yet effective at keeping you breathing normally. CPAP machines are also portable and fairly quiet. Newer equipment includes smaller, more comfortable masks. Benefits of CPAP therapy include better heart health, lower stroke risk, and improved alertness during the day.


According to a study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, another benefit of CPAP therapy is a lower risk of mortality in patients who have COPD and sleep apnea. Researchers found that people with both conditions who used CPAP more than two hours a night tended to live longer than those who used the therapy less than two hours a night. Researchers also noted that CPAP was especially beneficial to COPD patients already on long-term oxygen therapy.

CPAP therapy is also helpful for COPD patients who also have hypercapnia, according to a report in American Family Physician. Hypercapnia occurs when the body has an unusually high level of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. COPDs and other lung diseases are the main causes of hypercapnia, which can be fatal if not properly treated.

Getting Started with CPAP

COPD makes breathing difficult when you’re sitting, standing, or being active. Lying flat on your back can be even more troublesome for anyone with a breathing disorder. COPD can also reduce blood flow to the brain while sleeping. You may benefit from CPAP even if you don’t have sleep apnea.

If you have COPD, even if it’s at a mild stage, you should ask your doctor about CPAP therapy. If you’ve never been diagnosed with sleep apnea, you may benefit from an overnight sleep study that measures your oxygen levels during the night and can help identify moments when your breathing is interrupted. If your doctor doesn’t know much about sleep disorders, ask for a referral to a sleep disorder specialist or a pulmonary specialist who can best determine if your particular chronic lung condition might benefit from CPAP.  If you have COPD, you will require ongoing care to manage your symptoms. CPAP therapy is one option that might complement your disease management.

Getting fitted for a mask and learning how to use the equipment properly may take a little time. However, if it improves your body’s oxygen levels, boosts your energy, and allows you to have uninterrupted sleep, CPAP therapy might  be worth exploring.

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