How To Diagnose Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder where breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. Diagnosing sleep apnea typically involves a thorough examination by a healthcare provider, which may include evaluating medical history, performing a physical examination, and conducting sleep studies like a polysomnogram (PSG) or a home sleep apnea test (HSAT). Recognizing the symptoms and seeking professional advice is the first step towards an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment plan.

Understanding Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is often characterized by loud snoring, periods of breathing cessation followed by gasps or choking, and excessive daytime sleepiness. Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is the most common form, where the airway collapses or becomes blocked during sleep. Central Sleep Apnea (CSA), less common, occurs when the brain doesn’t send the right signals to muscles controlling breathing.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Before a diagnosis can be made, it is important to recognize the symptoms of sleep apnea, which include:

– Loud snoring
– Observed episodes of stopped breathing during sleep
– Abrupt awakenings accompanied by gasping or choking
– Morning headache
– Dry mouth or sore throat upon awakening
– Difficulty staying asleep (insomnia)
– Excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia)
– Attention problems
– Irritability

Initial Steps for Diagnosis

If you or a loved one experience symptoms indicative of sleep apnea, the initial step is to consult a healthcare provider. A thorough medical and sleep history will be taken, including asking about your symptoms and the presence of risk factors such as obesity, neck circumference, and family history of sleep apnea.

Physical Examination

A physical examination might reveal signs that could suggest a predisposition to sleep apnea. This may include checking for enlarged tonsils or adenoids, obesity, a large neck circumference, a recessed chin, or abnormalities in the structure of the upper airway.

Medical History Evaluation

A healthcare provider will review your medical history, including any known health conditions that may contribute to sleep apnea such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disorders. They may also inquire about the use of alcohol, tobacco, or sedatives, as these substances can worsen sleep apnea.

Diagnostic Tests for Sleep Apnea

After the initial assessment, if sleep apnea is suspected, specific sleep studies are often recommended. These tests accurately measure the number and severity of sleep disturbances over the course of one or more nights.

Polysomnography (PSG)

Polysomnography, commonly known as a sleep study, is an in-lab overnight test that records various bodily functions during sleep, such as brain waves, oxygen levels in the blood, heart rate and breathing, as well as eye and leg movements. It is the most comprehensive sleep study for diagnosing sleep apnea. If OSA is diagnosed, the technician may stay overnight and in some cases, they may give you a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine to use as part of a split-night study to determine the proper settings for you.

Home Sleep Apnea Testing (HSAT)

For some, an HSAT might be recommended. This is a simplified version of the polysomnogram which can be done at home. It measures fewer functions, primarily focused on breathing patterns, blood oxygen levels, and respiratory efforts. If this home-based test indicates the possibility of sleep apnea, your healthcare provider may still recommend a full in-lab polysomnogram to confirm the diagnosis and explore treatment options.

Other Tests

In some cases, additional tests such as the Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT) which measures how quickly you fall asleep during the day or the maintenance of wakefulness test (MWT) that measures how alert you stay during quiet times of the day, might be necessary to rule out other types of sleep disorders.

Risk Factors and Coexisting Conditions

Certain factors increase the risk of sleep apnea:

– Excess weight: Obesity greatly increases the risk of sleep apnea.
– Neck circumference: A thicker neck may have a narrower airway.
– A narrowed airway: Enlarged tonsils or adenoids can block the airway.
– Being male: Men are more likely to have sleep apnea than women.
– Age: Sleep apnea is more common in older adults.
– Family history: Having family members with sleep apnea might increase your risk.

Additionally, coexisting conditions such as congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes are commonly associated with sleep apnea.

Treatment Options

Once diagnosed, several treatment options for sleep apnea are available, tailored to the severity of the condition and the underlying cause. For mild forms of sleep apnea, lifestyle changes such as weight loss, limiting alcohol consumption, quitting smoking, and changing sleep positions can alleviate symptoms.

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CPAP Therapy

For moderate to severe cases, the gold standard treatment is Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) therapy, a machine that delivers air pressure through a mask while you sleep. This air pressure helps keep the airways open, preventing apnea events.

Oral Appliances

Some might benefit from oral appliances designed to keep the throat open by bringing the jaw forward, which can sometimes relieve snoring and mild obstructive sleep apnea.


Surgical options may be considered when other treatments are ineffective or inappropriate. Surgery can include procedures to remove tissue from the upper airway, correct structural abnormalities, or implant nerve stimulators.

Monitoring and Follow-up

Effective management of sleep apnea usually requires ongoing care and possibly adjustments in treatment. Regular follow-up with your healthcare provider is vital to assess the effectiveness of the treatment and to monitor for any potential complications.

Adjusting to Treatment and Lifestyle Modifications

Adjusting to the use of a CPAP machine or an oral appliance can take time, and some may experience difficulties or discomfort initially. Working closely with your healthcare provider to ensure a proper fit and gradually acclimating to the device can help in successful treatment.

Finishing Thoughts

Sleep apnea is a common yet serious condition that requires proper diagnosis and treatment to prevent complications and improve quality of life. Understanding the symptoms and being proactive in seeking medical advice are essential first steps. With appropriate diagnostic tests and a range of treatment options, individuals with sleep apnea can enjoy restful sleep and maintain good overall health. Remember, if you suspect that you or someone you know may have sleep apnea, don’t hesitate to reach out to a healthcare provider. Early diagnosis and treatment can make a significant difference in managing the condition and reducing the associated risks.


  • Aiden Lawrence

    I'm Aiden Lawrence, a certified Sleep Science Coach and senior editor of GoodSleepHub, proud parent of two amazing kids, and a pet lover with a cat and a dog. Join me as we explore the world of sweet dreams and comfy pillows. Let's make bedtime the highlight of your day!

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