Diagnosing Sleep Apnea

A diagnosis of sleep apnea requires a comprehensive history and physical examination by a medical professional who is versed in managing sleep disorders.  Patients with sleep apnea will often have other medical problems and/or be overweight, however many patients with sleep apnea will be otherwise healthy and only have complaints of fatigue or sleepiness.

If your doctor thinks you are likely to have sleep apnea, a diagnostic test is required.  The most comprehensive test for sleep apnea is a polysomnography.  This is performed in a sleep laboratory or sleep center.  It is attended by a health care professional (i.e., a polysomnography technologist) who will attach a variety of wire and sensors to your body to monitor your sleep (brain waves), breathing, oxygen levels, body movements and your heart rate and its rhythm.  You spend the night in a hotel like room in which the technologist will monitor your sleep and breathing.  The study is then analyzed for breathing abnormalities and if there are more than 5 breathing pauses or disruptions per hour that you are asleep, you are diagnosed with sleep apnea.

Another way to diagnose sleep apnea is with a home sleep test.  These tests are less sophisticated than the test done in a sleep laboratory and typically measure fewer signals – for example, most of the home sleep tests will only measure breathing signals.  For a home sleep test, you will either be asked to pick up the equipment and be shown how to put it on in the sleep center or a doctor’s office or, it may be shipped to your house.  A home sleep test is useful to diagnose sleep apnea, but if the home test is negative, you will likely need to have a sleep study (polysomnography) performed in a laboratory setting.