It may be hard to believe that something described as "a hurricane blowing up my nose" could also be considered a lifesaver. But that's exactly how Mike Miner, whose obstructive sleep apnea causes him to routinely stop breathing during the night, feels about his continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.

For many patients, CPAP is a blessing
After being diagnosed with sleep apnea, Miner, 58, became one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who regularly use air pressure machines to improve their oxygen levels while they sleep. Even napping without it would be pointless, says the golf course irrigation salesman in Jupiter, Fla., because he'd wake up every few minutes gasping for breath.

Miner admits that he was reluctant to try the clumsy-looking device, and that the blast of air up his nose felt awkward at first, but within the first week of using it, he was a convert. "Now if I don't wear it, I can feel what they were seeing in the sleep lab: I can feel that I wasn't breathing."

To others, it's a hassle
Virginia Arguello, 44, agrees that the benefits of CPAP are life-changing. When she spent her first night with a CPAP machine in 2000, she woke up feeling like a new person.

"It was the first time in years that I didn't have this recurring nightmare of being trapped underwater, never reaching the top," explains Arguello, a medical transcriptionist in Hayward, Calif. "I used to wake up gasping for air. The change was like night and day; I never realized how sleep deprived I'd been until I got the machine. It gave me back my sanity!"

More about CPAP

Arguello used her CPAP machine religiously for more than seven years, but eventually started to feel burdened by the machine—wearing it every night, hauling it on vacation, and struggling to get by without it when she went camping with her family. So at 44, she underwent surgery to have her tonsils, uvula, and soft palate removed—a procedure that so far (six months after her operation) has allowed her to sleep without CPAP.

"That machine changed my life, but at my age, I just want to be free of it," she says. "My doctors told me that as my body changes I may need to go back to the machine, but I just need to know that I've tried everything."

And to some, an impossibility
Some people never get used to CPAP, no matter how many models they try. Matt Hanover, 44, was given a machine after his apnea diagnosis about four years ago. For more than nine months, he tried countless pressure levels, masks, and machines with sophisticated features like humidifiers and self-regulating airflow. But his narrow nasal passages and an oversize tongue, his doctors explained, caused a problem.

"I've been a mouth breather all my life," says Hanover, a digital media producer in Santa Monica, Calif. "Wearing the CPAP machine felt equivalent to sticking my head out of a car window going 30 miles an hour. And I just couldn't keep my mouth shut for more than an hour to breathe through my nose."

Hanover eventually found treatment with an oral breathing device that moved his jaw forward while allowing him to breathe through his mouth. He later cured his apnea completely, with surgery to repair a deviated septum.