Connect with others who understand.

sign up log in
About mySMAteam

Connect with others who understand.

sign up log in
About mySMAteam

Respiratory Equipment for SMA: What To Look For

Posted on December 29, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Evelyn O. Berman, M.D.
Article written by
Maureen McNulty

Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a neuromuscular disorder that causes muscle weakness throughout your body. While some SMA treatments focus on modifying the genes responsible for the condition, other therapies focus on relieving your disease symptoms. In particular, many people with SMA have breathing problems that require specific treatments.

Respiratory (breathing) care is very important for people with this disorder. Different types of respiratory equipment can help develop your lungs, clear secretions (mucus and fluid) from your airway, ensure enough oxygen is getting into your blood, and help your lungs take deep breaths.

Why Do People With SMA Need Respiratory Support?

SMA causes you to have muscle weakness. Often, the muscles located near the middle of your body weaken sooner (and to a greater degree) than muscles located further from your body’s center. In particular, muscles in your chest can quickly lose strength. Chest muscles include your diaphragm (the thin muscle beneath your ribs) and the intercostal muscles (the set of muscles in between your ribs).

During normal breathing, your diaphragm and intercostal muscles work together to move air in and out of your lungs. In people with SMA, however, their intercostal muscles are often too weak to function properly. This causes many problems, including:

  • Inability to cough hard enough to clear your airways (the passages that lead air into and out of the lungs)
  • Trouble swallowing, which may cause heartburn or food getting inhaled into your lungs
  • Small, weak, underdeveloped lungs
  • Higher risk of lung infections
  • Sleeping problems (like sleep apnea)

It is very important to address respiratory problems in anyone with SMA, but it’s particularly the case for children. Breathing difficulties are the number one cause of illness for children with SMA type 1 and SMA type 2. They are also the leading cause of death for children with SMA. However, many tools and treatments now exist to help support their healthy breathing. Effective respiratory care not only helps people with SMA stay as healthy as possible but it also improves their quality of life.

Are you living with SMA? Are you looking into options for respiratory equipment? Click here to share your experience in the comments below.

Types of Respiratory Equipment

There are many different types of equipment that can help with the lung or airway problems that people with SMA might encounter. Not every person with SMA will need to use the same therapies. The equipment that you might use depends on your specific respiratory needs and personal preferences.

Doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating respiratory problems are called pulmonologists or respirologists. People with SMA should see a pulmonologist in order to come up with a respiratory treatment plan and to get help accessing any equipment they need.

Breathing Equipment

Many people with SMA need help breathing. This help, or support, often comes in the form of ventilation equipment, which uses pressure to push air into your lungs.

There are two main types of ventilation support. Noninvasive ventilation equipment remains outside of your body. It includes either a mask that covers the nose or a mask that fits over the nose and mouth. The mask can be removed when you are eating or talking. Conversely, invasive ventilation equipment goes inside of your body. It usually includes a tube that goes into your mouth or into a small hole in the front of your neck. Invasive ventilation devices stay in place permanently. People can often eat or talk with these invasive devices once they get used to them.

Noninvasive Ventilation

Health care professionals often recommend that children with SMA first try noninvasive ventilation (NIV). For people with SMA type 2 or SMA type 3, this type of breathing support is often effective for managing the condition long-term. Some people only need noninvasive ventilation while they are sleeping or when they are sick, while others need to use the equipment more often.

One piece of equipment that may be used for NIV is the bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP) machine. This device uses air pressure to keep your airways open. When a person with SMA uses the BiPAP machine, they can breathe in a larger amount of air than they normally could on their own.

Other devices may also be used to help push in or pull out air during noninvasive breathing support. Some people with SMA may need to use mechanical ventilators or “sipper vents” to get enough air.

Studies have found that noninvasive ventilation has several benefits, including:

  • Better sleep at night
  • Decreased sleepiness during the day
  • Fewer headaches
  • Improved appetite
  • Fewer hospital visits
  • Lower risk of death
  • Longer lifespan

Invasive Ventilation

If NIV doesn’t provide enough breathing support, invasive ventilation may be necessary. This type of therapy may start with a tube that goes into your mouth and down into your lungs. However, long-term invasive ventilation requires a tracheostomy — a small hole in the front of your throat that goes through your windpipe. Doctors place a small tracheostomy tube through the hole and into your lungs, and that tube gets hooked up to an oxygen machine.

Invasive ventilation may come with more drawbacks than NIV. It can place a large burden on your caregivers and families. Additionally, children who receive a tracheostomy may lose their ability to speak. It can be difficult for children who rely on invasive ventilation to attend school or be social. However, invasive breathing support may be very helpful for some children with SMA and severe breathing problems.

Equipment That Helps With Coughing

Sometimes, mucus naturally fills your lungs or airways. Coughing helps to clear this buildup of fluid as well as all of the particles trapped inside. This helps get rid of germs that cause respiratory infections. However, coughing is often difficult for people with SMA due to weak chest wall muscles.

Some breathing devices can help people with SMA clear their airways. An insufflator-exsufflator device, such as CoughAssist, can simulate the effects of a cough. This device quickly pushes air into the lungs and then pulls it back out again.

High-frequency chest wall oscillation devices, such as the InCourage system and SmartVest, are another type of equipment that can help people with SMA with their coughing. This device is a vest that makes your chest vibrate, which loosens any fluids or mucus in your lungs, and makes it easier to cough those substances out.

Equipment That Checks Oxygen Levels

When a person with SMA isn’t breathing as well as they need to, their body may not be getting enough oxygen to function properly. A pulse oximeter can determine if that’s the case by measuring the level of oxygen in a person’s blood. A pulse oximeter is a wrap or gentle clamp that sits on your finger or toe to elicit a reading. Low readings may be a sign that you need other respiratory therapies, such as a cough machine. Determine your exact reading parameters by talking with your pulmonologist.

How To Access Respiratory Equipment for SMA

SMA is a very expensive condition to manage. Health care for someone with SMA can often lead to medical costs that are more than 50 times what people without the condition may pay. However, resources exist that can help you access quality respiratory care.

There are many programs and agencies that help people with SMA and their caregivers access free or inexpensive medical equipment. Several of these programs provide donated devices that have been sanitized for someone else to use. Some programs also loan out devices or provide direct financial assistance if you have to use breathing equipment. The programs that can assist you to get these devices vary by state. Some programs may require people with SMA and/or their families to meet certain income thresholds, while other programs are available to everyone.

Some equipment may not be necessary in order for you to have proper respiratory care. There may be alternative inexpensive (or even free) ways to provide breathing support. For example, high-frequency chest wall oscillation devices can be very pricey. However, cheaper chest physiotherapy techniques may be just as effective at removing fluid from your lungs. One such option is for a caregiver to place a person with SMA into different positions that expose their back or chest. Once in position, the caregiver gently claps on (or pats) certain areas of your chest or back. This is called postural drainage with manual percussion. Your caregivers can learn how to perform these techniques properly with the help of your health care team.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On mySMAteam, the social network for people with spinal muscular atrophy and their loved ones, 1,300 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with SMA.

Are you living with SMA? Are you looking into options for respiratory equipment? Share your experiences in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on mySMAteam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Evelyn O. Berman, M.D. is a neurology and pediatric specialist and treats disorders of the brain in children. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about her here.
Maureen McNulty studied molecular genetics and English at Ohio State University. Learn more about her here.

Related articles

About one-third of people with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) are adults.Adults with SMA may have...

Treatment Options for Adults with SMA

About one-third of people with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) are adults.Adults with SMA may have...
Clinical trials may test new drugs or new dosages or combinations of drugs for spinal muscular...

5 Reasons To Consider Participating in SMA Clinical Trials

Clinical trials may test new drugs or new dosages or combinations of drugs for spinal muscular...
Clinical trials for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) test new treatments, new dosages of existing...

How Do Clinical Trials Work for SMA?

Clinical trials for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) test new treatments, new dosages of existing...
Clinical trials are designed with safety as a primary concern.Before a new drug, new dosage, or...

Are Clinical Trials Safe for People With SMA?

Clinical trials are designed with safety as a primary concern.Before a new drug, new dosage, or...
Costs for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) medications are high, but financial assistance programs...

Tips for Staying on Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) Therapies

Costs for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) medications are high, but financial assistance programs...
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a genetic, neuromuscular disorder. Because SMA is mostly driven...

Understanding How SMA Gene Therapy Works

Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a genetic, neuromuscular disorder. Because SMA is mostly driven...

Recent articles

The SMA community officially recognizes August as Spinal Muscular Atrophy Awareness Month. In...

UCSF Health and mySMAteam Partnership: SMA Awareness Month 2022

The SMA community officially recognizes August as Spinal Muscular Atrophy Awareness Month. In...
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has approved a second COVID-19 booster shot...

What People With SMA Should Know About Getting a Second COVID-19 Booster Shot

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has approved a second COVID-19 booster shot...
Historically, spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) has been difficult to diagnose. The doctors I saw as...

Learning Self-Advocacy at a Young Age: My Experiences

Historically, spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) has been difficult to diagnose. The doctors I saw as...
People in online gaming communities have a wide range of personalities, outlooks, and behaviors —...

Gaming With SMA: Beware of Trolls and Hackers

People in online gaming communities have a wide range of personalities, outlooks, and behaviors —...
Becoming a better gamer can enhance your enjoyment and expand your gaming opportunities. Getting...

Gaming With SMA: Leveling Up Your Gaming Skills

Becoming a better gamer can enhance your enjoyment and expand your gaming opportunities. Getting...
When you first get started with online gaming, finding friends can feel virtually impossible...

Gaming With SMA: Finding Friends in Online Gaming

When you first get started with online gaming, finding friends can feel virtually impossible...
mySMAteam My spinal muscular atrophy Team

Thank you for subscribing!

Become a member to get even more:

sign up for free

close