Sleep apnea is a common condition that causes you to stop breathing for short intervals while you sleep. If left untreated, it can have significant health effects over the long term.
If your doctor thinks you may have sleep apnea, you’ll likely undergo a nighttime sleep test that monitors your breathing.
Let’s take a closer look at the test options that are available for diagnosing sleep apnea.
Your doctor may ask you to complete one or more questionnaires to evaluate symptoms like daytime sleepiness as well as risk factors for the condition, such as high blood pressure, obesity, and age.
If your doctor suspects sleep apnea, they may recommend a sleep monitoring test. Also called a sleep study or polysomnography (PSG), it involves spending the night at a lab, clinic, or hospital. Your breathing and other vital signs will be monitored while you sleep.
It’s also possible to monitor your sleep in your own home. Your doctor might suggest at-home sleep monitoring if your symptoms and risk factors strongly suggest sleep apnea.
In-lab sleep studies are used to diagnose sleep apnea, along with a wide range of other sleep disorders.
Many sleep studies generally take place between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. If you’re a night owl or morning lark, this time frame may not be optimal. An at-home test may be recommended instead.
You’ll stay in a private room designed to make you feel comfortable, much like a hotel room. Bring pajamas and anything else you usually need to sleep.
Sleep studies are noninvasive. You don’t need to give a blood sample. However, you’ll have a variety of wires attached to your body. This enables the sleep technician to monitor your breathing, brain activity, and other vital signs while you’re asleep.
The more relaxed you are, the better the technician can monitor your sleep.
Once you fall asleep, the technician will monitor the following:
- your sleep cycle, as determined by your brain waves and eye movements
- your heart rate and blood pressure
- your breathing, including oxygen levels, breathing lapses, and snoring
- your position and any limb movements
There are two formats for sleep studies: full night and split night.
During a full-night sleep study, your sleep will be monitored for an entire night. If you receive a diagnosis of sleep apnea, you may need to return to the lab at a later date to set up a device to help you breathe.
During a split-night study, the first half of the night is used to monitor your sleep. If sleep apnea is diagnosed, the second part of the night is used to set up the treatment device.
In-lab sleep tests have advantages and disadvantages. Talk to your doctor about your test preference.
An at-home sleep test is a simplified version of an in-lab test. There’s no technician. Instead, your doctor will prescribe a portable breathing monitor kit that you’ll take home.
On the night of the test, you can follow your regular bedtime routine. Pay special attention to the instructions provided with the kit to ensure you correctly hook up the monitoring sensors.
Most at-home sleep apnea monitors are easy to set up. They generally include the following components:
- a finger clip that measures your oxygen levels and heart rate
- a nasal cannula to measure oxygen and airflow
- sensors to track the rise and fall of your chest
Unlike an in-lab test, an at-home test doesn’t measure your sleep cycles or position or limb movements during the night.
Following the test, your results will be sent to your doctor. They’ll contact you to discuss the results and identify treatment, if necessary.
At-home sleep tests have advantages and disadvantages. Talk to your doctor about your test preference.
A doctor or sleep specialist will interpret the results of your in-lab or at-home sleep apnea test.
Doctors use a scale called the Apnea Hypopnea Index (AHI) to diagnose sleep apnea. This scale includes a measurement of the number of apneas, or lapses in breath, per hour of sleep during the study.
People who don’t have sleep apnea, or have a mild form of sleep apnea, usually experience less than five apneas per hour. People who have severe sleep apnea may experience more than 30 sleep apneas per hour.
Doctors also review your oxygen levels when diagnosing sleep apnea. While there’s no accepted cutoff level for sleep apnea, if your blood oxygen levels are lower than average, it may be a sign of sleep apnea.
If the results are unclear, your doctor may recommend repeating the test. If sleep apnea isn’t found but your symptoms continue, your doctor may recommend another test.
Treatment depends on the severity of your sleep apnea. In some cases, lifestyle changes are all that’s required. These may include:
- losing weight
- using a special sleep apnea pillow
- changing your sleep position
There are a number of effective medical treatment options for sleep apnea. These include:
- Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). The most common and effective device for treating sleep apnea is a machine called a CPAP. With this device, a small mask is used to increase the pressure in your airways.
- Oral appliances. A dental device that pushes your lower jaw forward can prevent your throat from closing while you breathe. These may be effective in mild to moderate cases of sleep apnea.
- Nasal device. A small bandage-like device called Provent Sleep Apnea Therapy has been
shown to be effectivewith some cases of mild to moderate sleep apnea. It’s placed just inside the nostrils and creates pressure that helps keep your airways open.
- Oxygen delivery. Sometimes, oxygen is prescribed alongside a CPAP device to increase blood oxygen levels.
- Surgery. When other treatments aren’t effective, surgery might be an option to alter the structure of your airways. There are a wide range of surgical options that can treat sleep apnea.
Both in-lab and at-home sleep apnea tests measure vital functions, such as breathing patterns, heart rate, and oxygen levels. The results of these tests can help your doctor determine whether you have sleep apnea.
A polysomnography (PSG) conducted in a lab is the most accurate test available to diagnose sleep apnea. At-home sleep apnea tests have reasonable accuracy. They’re also more cost effective and convenient.