How is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleep disorder affecting babies, children and adults that causes frequent awakenings during the night – all due to your breathing stopping and restarting while you are sleeping. 

In this article, we will describe the symptoms of sleep apnea, explain how it is diagnosed and touch on the treatment options available.

What causes obstructive sleep apnea?

Breathing difficulties are caused by a blockage of the airway, caused by collapse of the soft tissue at the back of the throat during sleep when the muscles are relaxed. 

During each episode, breathing stops for ten seconds or longer, causing you to wake up briefly as your body tries to get oxygen. 

The number of episodes can range from just a few times each night (in mild cases) to hundreds of times during the night (in severe cases). 

When you are struggling to breathe, your oxygen levels drop, carbon dioxide levels rise and your blood pressure and heart rate increase. As your body isn’t getting enough oxygen to function properly, this can seriously affect your overall health.

Who is more likely to get sleep apnea?

You are more likely to have OSA if you are:

  • over 50 years of age
  •  overweight
  • have a neck circumference of 17 inches (men) or 16 inches (women) or higher
  • a small jaw with an overbite
  • large tonsils
  • have a family history of OSA

This condition is more common in men than women -- and the risk is also increased by heavy smoking, alcohol consumption, and certain medications. 

However, anyone no matter their gender, age or body type can suffer from sleep apnea. 

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

The majority of in-sleep OSA symptoms tend to be noticed by your partner rather than yourself and tend to include:

  •  Loud snoring
  •  Gasping, snorting, or choking noises
  • Waking up a lot
  • Frequent night-time urination

It is important to note that not everyone who snores loudly has OSA, and not everyone who has OSA snores loudly. 

Daytime symptoms you may notice include:

  •  Headache or dizziness upon waking
  •  Dry mouth upon waking (due to mouth breathing)
  • Feeling incredibly tired (non-restorative sleep) e.g., drowsiness while driving
  • Lack of concentration, forgetfulness, or irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Low sex drive

How serious is sleep apnea?

OSA can be very serious if it remains untreated -- as it deprives the brain, arteries and vital organs of oxygen and your heart wall can thicken due to the increased workload. 

Chronic sleep deprivation can cause other health problems such as chronic fatigue, hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, depression, heart failure, strokes, and heart attacks. 

OSA can also cause pregnancy complications, such as gestational diabetes and preeclampsia, poor performance at school or work, car accidents, and premature death.

In-home testing for sleep apnea

If you think you may have OSA, the first step towards a diagnosis is in-home testing. You can obtain testing equipment and evaluate yourself while sleeping in your own bed in the comfort of your own home. 

This test measures airflow, breathing effort, blood oxygen levels and snoring to confirm a diagnosis of moderate to severe OSA.

How is sleep apnea treated?

Mild sleep apnea can often be managed with lifestyle modifications such as losing weight if you are overweight, stopping smoking, limiting alcohol (particularly before bedtime), avoiding taking sleep medication and sleeping on your side rather than your back (special pillows are available to aid this). 

People with sinus problems can benefit from using nasal decongestants or breathing strips to increase airflow. 

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is, however, always the gold standard of treatment. 

Mild-to-moderate OSA may be treated by wearing a dental device (similar to a retainer) that prevents the tongue from blocking the throat. Some tongue, throat and jaw exercises can also help reduce symptoms in moderate OSA.

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is, however, always the gold standard of treatment. 

Severe OSA is treated with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine that involves you wearing a mask over your nose and/or mouth while asleep. 

The machine blows air into your airways at a single, specific air pressure level to prevent the upper airway tissues from collapsing during sleep. Other types of PAP machine apply multiple pressure levels. 

If you have questions or concerns about sleep apnea, and believe you might benefit from sleep testing, contact SleepQuest's Sleep Care Specialists today.