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From Dogs to Humans: The History of CPAP Masks

From Dogs to Humans: The History of CPAP Masks

Every invention comes with an exciting story, and the CPAP machine is no different. From dogs to humans: the history of CPAP masks has a surprising origin story but leads to a medical miracle that offers a safer solution than surgery.

The Problem

Before CPAP therapy was at the forefront, doctors didn't have many options for treatment. The most common solution was surgery if obstructive sleep apnea was the culprit. The clinician would sedate you and permanently remove a portion of your respiratory system that’s causing the OSA obstruction.

In other circumstances, someone might have gotten the more obtrusive and scarier operation of a permanent tracheostomy. This operation requires an incision in the person's airway. After the incision, the doctor will insert a small tube to supply air.

Until the early 1980s, tracheostomies were the go-to solution for anyone with sleep apnea. However, the intrusive procedure left the need for something better.

The Origin

Dr. Colin Sullivan was looking for ways to aid his beloved dog to breathe better, introducing a vacuum cleaner hose to the pup. The lightbulb went off in Sullivan's mind, realizing that if it works for canines, it can also work for humans.

This discovery led to an experimental treatment on humans with an unconventional machine of a mask and tubes powered by a vacuum motor.

Figuring the test subject didn't want a tracheostomy, an individual decided to be the test subject for Sullivan's experiment. Shortly thereafter, Sullivan fired up the vacuum motor, hoping that the air would circulate through their respiratory system and bypass the blockage.

Through multiple hours of trial and error, Sullivan realized he had developed a possible alternative to a frightening surgery. Such a discovery would end up changing the medical world forever.

Because of his work with the Asthma Foundation in New South Wales, Sullivan always had a passion for those suffering from respiratory afflictions. Sullivan met a man, David Read, who became his mentor. Read was an expert in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS,) and the two concluded that SIDS is another unfortunate conclusion of a barrier in someone's airway while they were asleep.

To make sure their hypothesis was correct, Sullivan went to the University of Toronto for further research, including conducting other experiments on various breeds of dogs.

Sullivan needed dogs with small airways who snored, so he studied pugs, boxers, and bulldogs. Through his meticulous experiments and observations, Sullivan concluded that this type of treatment would make it easier for people to breathe while they were asleep. Thus, in 1981, the inaugural CPAP machine came to fruition.

The Purpose

The primary function is to assist those with sleep-related disorders, although it also helps infants with underdeveloped lungs. In short, the purpose of a CPAP device is to help someone who has trouble breathing in their sleep. The mask, tube, straps, and motor of the device work in unison to supply your lungs with the necessary oxygen.

Ideally, the device will subside a user's side effects immediately. Things like getting a better night's sleep, minimal daytime drowsiness, and reduced snoring are positive signs that the treatment effectively works in the short term.

Plus, there are long-term benefits that include a lower risk of stroke, prevention of high blood pressure, and enhanced memory. When you’re no longer waking up every two hours, your brain and body get the rest they need, making you feel like a new person.

The Evolution

Smarter Technologies

The evolution and technological advancements of the CPAP machine have improved its success mightily. Some devices are so in tune with your breathing patterns that they adjust accordingly based on what you need. If the machine feels you need an additional supply of air, it does it automatically, and vice versa if it thinks you need less.

Older machines had one setting, but newer machines have multiple ones that adjust over time because of changes in your weight, age, and stress level. For example, if you lose weight, you likely need an adjustment from your original diagnosis. In the CPAP infancy stages, you need to take another sleep study to fix this complication. Luckily, that's no longer the case with these automatic machines.

Portable & Convenient

In the beginning, because of their size and weight, CPAP machines were virtually impossible to bring with you. Now, the machines are much smaller and can go anywhere you go. In fact, several systems are even compact enough to fit in your hand.

For the last few years, many manufacturers have made small-scale CPAP machines that weigh less than a pound because scales have become smaller. Even though it's challenging, CPAP suppliers realize how pertinent accessibility is. They're working to make their products small, light, and easy to move around, especially for the constant traveler.


In the early stages, using plaster molds helped make CPAP masks that fit the person's face. Manufacturers made small holes in the fiberglass and then put tubes through them. They did this so that air could get into the fiberglass. When you put the mask on with a silicone adhesive, you would make sure that it wouldn't fall off in the middle of the night.

Since then, there have been more technological changes in CPAP devices. For starters, CPAP machines are smaller and quieter. Plus, the masks are much more comfortable, seeing as they have adjustable straps and masks. 

Another crucial advancement has been incorporating a humidifier into the treatment. Your throat and airway can dry out quickly with the tubing; therefore, a humidifier can supply the moisture needed. Finally, if your CPAP treatment wasn't cutting the mustard, other devices might help.

An APAP machine will automatically adjust pressure settings during someone's sleep cycles. BiPAP machines were made available in the 1990s, and offer two levels of pressure as opposed to a CPAP machine's single level. So, there is more than one way to tackle your sleep disorder.

Ramp Pressure

When there was just one pressure device, the physician had to put various valves on the unit's output end to get the appropriate pressure configurations. Currently, most machines can store numerous settings and ramp pressure.

Ramp is the comfort setting on most CPAP machines nowadays. You can set the machine to start with reduced pressure in the ramp setting and gradually add pressure over a fixed period to keep constant airflow as you sleep.

There's your history lesson of dogs to humans: the history of CPAP masks. It's crazy to imagine that a machine that helps millions of people worldwide came about from the love of a man's dog. If you need CPAP masks for sale for your newly diagnosed condition, please browse CPAPnation's inventory and feel free to ask us any questions. We are more than happy to help!

From Dogs to Humans: The History of CPAP Masks

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