How Do You Test For Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep. Testing for sleep apnea typically involves an evaluation of your medical and family histories, a physical examination, and a sleep study which can be done either at home (a home sleep apnea test) or in a specialized sleep center (polysomnography). A doctor who specializes in sleep disorders, usually a sleep specialist, can interpret the results from these tests to diagnose sleep apnea and determine its severity.

Understanding Sleep Apnea

Before delving into the specifics of testing for sleep apnea, it’s crucial to understand what this condition entails. Sleep apnea is most commonly characterized by pauses in breathing (apneas) or shallow breathing during sleep. These pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes and often occur many times a night. As a result, the quality of sleep is poor, which makes the person feel tired during the day.

There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), the more common form, which occurs due to a blockage of the airway, usually when the soft tissue at the back of the throat collapses during sleep, and central sleep apnea, which occurs when the brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing.

Signs and Symptoms Indicative of Sleep Apnea

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of sleep apnea is the first step towards testing and diagnosis. Here are some indications that suggest a person may have sleep apnea:

  • Loud snoring
  • Episodes of stopped breathing during sleep, often reported by another person
  • Gasping for air during sleep
  • Waking up with a dry mouth
  • Morning headache
  • Insomnia or difficulty falling asleep
  • Hypersomnia or excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Difficulty paying attention or staying focused
  • Irritability

Initial Evaluation

Medical and Family History

The testing process begins with a comprehensive look at your medical and family histories. Discuss with your healthcare provider about any symptoms you’re experiencing, and if possible, include input from a family member or bed partner who might be aware of your sleep behavior. Conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, and past family history of sleep apnea are important to note.

Physical Examination

A physical exam will include examining the back of your throat, nose, and mouth for any abnormalities. Your doctor will look for extra tissue, large tonsils, or a large tongue that could be blocking your upper airway. Your neck circumference may also be measured, as a thicker neck might narrow the airway and trigger sleep apnea.

Referral to a Sleep Specialist

If your primary care doctor suspects sleep apnea, you’ll likely be referred to a sleep specialist. Sleep specialists can conduct further assessments and guide you through the next steps of testing.

Sleep Studies

Home Sleep Apnea Testing (HSAT)

For some individuals, a home sleep apnea test might be an option. These tests are generally simpler and measure fewer parameters than those measured in a full polysomnography. During a home sleep test, you’ll use portable equipment that will typically measure:

  • Your heart rate
  • Blood oxygen level
  • Airflow
  • Breathing patterns

Keep in mind that while home sleep apnea tests are convenient, they may not detect all cases of sleep apnea. Your doctor will help determine if a home test is appropriate for you or if you need a more comprehensive in-lab study.


This is an in-depth sleep study conducted at a sleep center or sleep lab. You’ll be hooked up to equipment that monitors your heart, lung and brain activity, breathing patterns, arm and leg movements, and blood oxygen levels while you sleep. A trained sleep specialist will analyze this data to see whether or not you have sleep apnea or other sleep disorders.

Interpreting Test Results

The main metric used to diagnose sleep apnea is the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI). It measures the number of apneas and hypopneas (partial blockage of air) you have per hour. An AHI of 5-15 is considered mild sleep apnea, 15-30 is moderate, and more than 30 is severe.

Similarly, the oxygen desaturation index (ODI) records how often your blood oxygen level drops by a certain degree from normal during the night. Frequent desaturations can indicate severe breathing problems during sleep.

Treatment Options

After a positive diagnosis, a range of treatment options is available:

  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP): The most common and reliable method for treating OSA, it involves wearing a mask over the nose or mouth during sleep. The mask is connected to a machine that delivers air pressure to keep the airway open.
  • Oral Appliances: These devices, similar to mouth guards, help keep the throat open by bringing the jaw forward during sleep.
  • Surgery: If other treatments are ineffective, various surgical procedures can remove or shrink obstruction-causing tissues, or even advance the position of the jaw to enlarge the upper airway.
  • Lifestyle Changes: For mild cases of sleep apnea, making certain lifestyle changes such as losing weight, quitting smoking, and avoiding alcohol may be recommended.

Follow-up and Long-term Management

Continued communication with your healthcare provider is critical for managing sleep apnea. Follow-up visits to assess the effectiveness of the treatment and to make necessary adjustments are important. Regular monitoring is often needed to ensure optimal treatment efficacy and health outcomes.

Finishing Thoughts

Testing for sleep apnea involves a combination of evaluating symptoms, a physical examination, and potentially undergoing a sleep study. If sleep apnea is diagnosed, there are several treatments available to help manage the condition and improve sleep quality. Always seek the guidance of a medical professional if sleep apnea is suspected, as early detection and treatment can significantly improve quality of life and prevent complications associated with the disorder. Remember, a good night’s sleep is crucial to overall health and well-being.

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  • Ollie Lane

    My name is Ollie Lane, the zestful spirit and sleep enthusiast editor at GoodSleepHub. Blending my expertise in Sleep Technology with a dash of whimsy, I'm all about transforming your nights from blah to ta-da! I believe great sleep is a blend of science, art, and a bit of fairy dust. When I'm not knee-deep in the latest sleep gadgetry or jotting down notes for my next blog post, you can find me strumming on my ukulele or chasing after my mischievous beagle, Benny. My approach to sleep is like my music: playful, innovative, and always in tune with your needs.

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