How is obstructive sleep apnea diagnosed?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

If your doctor suspects you have sleep apnea, they may suggest you go to a sleep laboratory. At the sleep lab, you may be attached to machines that can measure your body as you sleep. There are tests to measure blood oxygen levels, organ function, breathing patterns, eye movements, brain waves and more. A doctor can evaluate these test results to make a diagnosis.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when something is literally obstructing or blocking your airway while you sleep, but how do we know for sure? One way to check is to have someone check in on you when you sleep.

Ask someone you live with to help or, if you live alone, invite a really good friend or family member for a sleepover. You go to bed first. After an hour or so, your friend should slip quietly into your room and listen. If there's no one to ask to listen, use an old-fashioned tape recorder or recording device.

What did you learn? Do you snore? Do you stop breathing regularly and go quiet? Do you gasp, jerk, or snort and resume breathing regularly? These are all indications your breathing is being interrupted. Even if you experience only one of these symptoms and you're fatigued during the day, call your doctor and ask for a professional sleep study.

What's a sleep study, you ask? Called a polysomnogram, it's pretty much the same experience as your home sleep experiment: you go to sleep at night, but this time, your vitals will be measured at a clinic, including oxygen, brain waves, eye movement, and other biological indicators.

You may even be able to do a professional sleep study at home. A small bedside device—prescribed by your doctor—has hookups for your heart rate, breathing, and other vitals that will indicate how many times you stop breathing and wake up at night. If you have sleep apnea, you will be surprised by how large this number will be!

Before you undergo any sleep study, be sure not to drink alcohol or caffeine, take a nap, or take any sleep aids that might interfere with the results. In fact, it's dangerous for people with sleep apnea to take sleeping medications.

Dr. Ravi S. Aysola, MD
Pulmonary Disease Specialist

To test for obstructive sleep apnea, doctors use a test called the split-night polysomnogram, also called a split-night sleep study. Split-night means that if during the first half of the test, your doctor sees that you have significant sleep apnea, then he or she will put you on continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) for the second half of the test, adjusting the pressures to find an optimal setting.

A board certified sleep medicine physician can diagnose obstructive sleep apnea using an in-lab sleep study or a home sleep apnea test. A board-certified sleep physician has training and expertise in diagnosing and treating sleep apnea.

The physician will need to know your symptoms, and whether they began when you gained weight or stopped exercising. If you can, ask a partner or roommate or relative if they have ever heard you snore loudly or make choking noises in your sleep.

You also may need to keep a sleep diary for 2 weeks. This includes information about what time you went to bed each night, when you woke up in the morning and how many times you woke up each night. This will help the doctor see your sleep patterns, which could contain clues about how to diagnose and correct your sleep problem.

A sleep medicine physician also will try to determine if there is something else that is causing your sleep problems or making the symptoms worse, such as:

  • Another sleep disorder
  • A medical condition
  • Medication use
  • A mental health disorder
  • Substance abuse

An objective evaluation of your sleep may be needed before your sleep physician can make a diagnosis.

This content originally appeared on the American Academy of Sleep Medicine website.

Continue Learning about Obstructive Sleep Apnea

What are the surgical options for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)?
Dr. Paul T. Hoff, MDDr. Paul T. Hoff, MD
There are many surgical options for people with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), including surgery on ...
More Answers
Is obstructive sleep apnea a sleep disorder?
Honor Society of Nursing (STTI)Honor Society of Nursing (STTI)
Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder. It happens when the soft tissue in the back of your...
More Answers
Should I Be Worried About My Snoring?
Should I Be Worried About My Snoring?
What Are the Health Complications Associated with Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
What Are the Health Complications Associated with Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.