What is the role of positive-pressure ventilation in childhood obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) treatment?

Updated: Feb 13, 2019
  • Author: Mary E Cataletto, MD; Chief Editor: Denise Serebrisky, MD  more...
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An important distinction must be made between continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) and bilevel (or biphasic) positive airway pressure (BiPAP). In CPAP, airway pressure is maintained above atmospheric pressure throughout the respiratory cycle. CPAP is the mainstay of therapy for most adults with obstructive sleep apnea, as well as a large number of children and adolescents. Continuous distending airway pressure is applied during sleep using a nasal mask and small compressor. CPAP acts as a pneumatic splint to maintain airway patency. By simultaneously increasing the functional residual capacity, this pressure also helps prevent oxygen desaturation even if airway obstruction breaks through. BiPAP or noninvasive ventilation is the preferred form of treatment over CPAP in children with OSA due to neuromuscular disease. [29]

Marcus et al demonstrated improvements in daytime sleepiness, ADHD symptoms, internalizing behaviors and overall quality of life in children with OSA as early as 3 months following the initiation of CPAP therapy. The findings held true in a heterogeneous group of children with OSA and were present even with a mean use of 3 hours/night. These authors suggest that despite the challenges of adherence in young or developmentally delayed children with OSA, clinicians should encourage use of CPAP therapy in appropriate children. [21]

Various patient interfaces are available, including nasal masks, facemasks, gel masks, and nasal pillows to help facilitate a comfortable fit and adherence to therapy. The amount of CPAP pressure must be individualized for each patient and is determined during a CPAP titration study in the sleep laboratory. The goal is to find an optimal pressure that eliminates apnea and minimizes snoring but is still comfortable and does not lead to excessive air swallowing, gastric distention, and air leak around the mask or through the mouth. Long-term effects of nasal CPAP therapy on maxillofacial structure development in children are unknown.

In BiPAP, pressure is delivered during the inspiratory cycle; exhalation then occurs at either atmospheric pressure or at a preset positive airway pressure, such that differences between inspiratory and expiratory pressures are usually greater than 10 cm H2 O. The BiPAP device may be set to control ventilation entirely (control mode), to deliver breaths only when triggered by a threshold negative pressure or nasal flow generated by the patient (assist mode), or both (assist/control mode).

Because CPAP does not involve a respiratory phase change in pressure, no control or assist modes are available.

Another important aspect of these interventions involves the patient-machine interface. The use of nasal prongs, nasal masks, or facemasks requires individualized case-by-case consideration. However, when a silicone mask is selected, particular care to ensure that the mask fits snugly and is comfortable to the patient is essential for ensuring successful intervention. Pediatric masks are currently available in several sizes and for particular clinical conditions, such as craniofacial syndromes. Custom-made masks can be ordered to fit the facial contours.

Inappropriately fitting masks inevitably leak, and efforts to seal these leaks frequently result in pressure sores on the bridge of the nose. Bubble-cushioned masks have been developed and sometimes palliate the severity of the air leak while adding to the patient's comfort. In addition, air leaks are more frequently directed upward and may irritate the conjunctiva, leading to increased lacrimation and eye discomfort. Tolerance of CPAP or BiPAP may be greatly increased by devoting time to condition the patient to use the mask during waking hours, particularly in young or developmentally delayed patients.

Pay attention to the mask manifold to ensure that no pressure vectors are generated. Multiple techniques may be used to secure the mask and primarily include Velcro, elastic straps, or a tissue cap. Again, the importance of the patient's comfort cannot be overemphasized. Finally, implement adequate parental training and behavioral techniques designed to improve the acceptance and tolerance of these devices in order to increase patient and family compliance. Over the last decade, CPAP has been increasingly used in children as a successful alternative to upper airway surgery or tracheotomy. However, midfacial hypoplasia may develop with long-term use, particularly in children with neuromuscular weakness. In other situations, temporary palliation using supplemental oxygen may be implemented until surgery, provided that sufficient attention is given to the possibility that severe hypercapnia may develop.

Some children have profound craniofacial deformities that are not easily remedied. Occasionally, surgical procedures undertaken to remedy obstructive sleep apnea only help the problem but do not completely eliminate it. In these situations, therapy is usually best accomplished with devices that deliver CPAP.

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