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Tests for sleep apnea

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  • If you’re showing signs of sleep apnea, your doctor will check your mouth first and look for factors that may predispose you to this condition, such as large tonsils and narrowing of the upper airway
  • A nocturnal polysomnography can be recommended to diagnose sleep apnea. If your doctor suggests this test, you will stay overnight in a hospital or sleep center to have parameters such as apnea events, blood oxygen levels, and heart and brain activity monitored
  • Other tests that can be utilized to check for sleep apnea include an electroencephalogram, electromyogram and electrocardiogram

If you notice initial signs of sleep apnea, you should get checked right away to prevent other health issues from developing. There are different methods doctors can use to diagnose this condition.

Physical exams for sleep apnea

To diagnose sleep apnea, your doctor will inspect your mouth’s upper airway1 and check for factors that may increase your risk for this health problem, such as:2

  • Large tonsils
  • Jaw size and structure
  • Tongue size
  • Tongue position in your mouth
  • Obesity
  • Narrowing of the upper airway
  • Large neck circumference (greater than 17 inches in men or 16 inches in women)

Your doctor may ask questions regarding your sleeping habits3 and will check for possible complications by examining your lungs, heart and neurological systems.4 Information regarding your sleep history may be requested too.5

How does an overnight test detect sleep apnea?

If your condition needs to be further evaluated, you may be referred to a sleep disorder center for a nocturnal polysomnography. You’ll need to sleep in a private bedroom in the center or another hospital overnight,6 so you can be monitored.

When you undergo a sleep study, you’ll be attached to different types of equipment, such as surface electrodes (placed on the face and scalp), belts (wrapped around the chest and abdomen) and oximeter probe (applied on the finger).7 According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a sleep study will:8

  • Count apnea events or instances where breathing stops or slows down
  • Check if low or high activity levels occur in breathing-controlling muscles
  • Determine blood oxygen levels once asleep
  • Inspect brain and heart activity

Your doctor can determine the severity of your sleep apnea by checking the number of apnea events in one hour:

  • Mild sleep apnea — Five to 14 apnea events
  • Moderate sleep apnea — 15 to 29 apnea events
  • Severe sleep apnea — 30 or more apnea events

Other methods that may help diagnose sleep apnea

Simplified home sleep tests or monitors (classified into Type II, Type III or Type IV9) that check heart rate, blood oxygen level, airflow and breathing patterns may be advised. Your doctor can diagnose the condition and discuss ideal forms of therapy and monitoring if the test results are abnormal.

However, while such tests are convenient, they’re not always accurate in determining instances of sleep apnea. Even if initial results are normal, it’s possible that your doctor may ask you to undergo a polysomnography.10 Other methods that may help diagnose sleep apnea, according to WebMD, include:11

  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) — If your doctor wants to look into brain activity that occurs during sleep, this test may help.
  • Electromyogram (EMG) — An EMG detects face twitches, leg movements and teeth grinding. However, it can also be used to see if the body progresses into REM stage sleep, wherein brain activity can rise because of intense dreams.
  • Electro-oculogram (EOG) — This test detects eye movements, and checks if your body goes through various sleep stages properly.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) — ECG results can be used to look into your heart rate and rhythm.
  • Nasal airflow sensor — It can be used to detect your airflow.
  • Snore microphone — This will help track and record snoring.

You can also seek help from these health professionals if you have been diagnosed with sleep apnea:12

  • Ear, nose and throat doctor — A consultation may help people struggling with obstructive sleep apnea because this may aid in checking and ruling out throat or nose blockages.
  • Cardiologist (heart doctor) or neurologist (brain doctor) — They may help you determine why you have central sleep apnea.


Sleep Apnea: An Introduction

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep Apnea Symptoms

Sleep Apnea Causes

Types of Sleep Apnea

Sleep Apnea Treatment

Sleep Apnea Testing

Sleep Apnea Surgery

Sleep Apnea Prevention

Sleep Apnea FAQ

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