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How Is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed and Treated


Written by Dr. Welsh, Published on 27 July 2014

How Is Sleep Apnea Identified and How Is It Treated?

Because Sleep Apnea cannot be diagnosed in the context of a routine medical visit, it requires a certain protocol to be effectively diagnosed. An effective way to establish to one's physician that you may be suffering from sleep apnea is to keep a sleep diary for fourteen days leading up to your appointment. You can use this diary as evidence that your sleeping habits are being disrupted, which may prompt your physician to set you up with an appointment with a sleep specialist.

Also, be open with your doctor about your energy levels and how your sleeping issues impact your quality of life. It's also important to share your personal and family medical history in order to provide further evidence of your deficiency.

Sleep Apnea Physical

Further evidence of sleep apnea can be evaluated via physical examination. Your doctor can look into your throat, nose and mouth in order to identify the presence of tissue which may impede the ability to breath easily during the night. For example, many adult Sleep Apnea patients have a soft palate or uvula which is larger than normal and restricts airways during sleep.

If your physician considers you a potential sleep apnea sufferer, he or she will likely recommend that you visit a sleep specialist. There are a number of tests that can accurately diagnose sleep apnea, but these tests require you to have an opportunity to be monitored sleeping comfortably.

Polysomnogram for Sleep Apnea Diagnosis

The most frequently used test for sleep apnea is known as a Polysomnogram. This test uses various diagnostic devices in order to evaluate blood pressure, heart rate, eye movement, and brain activity during sleep. This test also measures other factors, including the rise and fall of your chest, snoring, and the rate at which air flows in and out of your nose, as well as oxygen levels in your blood stream.

As you can imagine, this test is fairly elaborate, so it generally requires that you visit a specifically designed sleep laboratory or sleep center. There is no pain involved with the procedure, and it's no different than a normal night's sleep, except of course, you will be fitted with a number of sensors attached to your finger, limbs, chest, face, and scalp.

These devices will help your sleep specialist provide you with an informed diagnosis with regard to your sleep apnea, which will help him or her provide you with the most effective form of treatment to meet your needs.

CPAP Sleep Apnea Treatment

The most effective method to treat Sleep Apnea is known as a CPAP, or Continuous Positive Airway Pressure device. This works exactly how it sounds. It enhances air flow through your nose and throat, widening your airway and helping you sleep more soundly through the night. The elaborate testing during your sleep study will help your physician properly calibrate the CPAP to meet the needs of your body at rest.

There are also tests which can be administered at your home to provide diagnostic data regarding your sleeping pattern. The most commonly used device is known as a Home-Based Portable Monitor. Of course, this device will not provide the same depth of results as a Polysomnogram, but it can provide valuable data at a cheaper cost. In particular, the home monitor measures the rise and fall of the chest, heart rate, air circulation, and blood-oxygen levels. Often, this test is used as a preliminary examination for patients, in order to see if they actually need a sleep study.

What Are Sleep Apnea Treatment Options

There are a number of options available to sleep apnea patients, dependent upon the severity and source of their apnea. These options include breathing devices, mouthpieces, changes in lifestyle, and surgery. Obstructive sleep apnea is generally not treated with medication

What Are the Goals of Sleep Apnea Treatment?

  • Reduce Fatigue

  • Stop Snoring

  • Make It Easier to Breath During Sleep

Because sleep apnea is commonly associated with other conditions such as hypertension and obesity, Sleep Apnea treatment is often combined with other forms of treatment in order to relieve these other related medical conditions.

It is important to treat sleep apnea, because in doing so, you can reduce the risk of a variety of related medical conditions, especially those related to the heart and cardiovascular system, including stroke and heart attack.

The treatment that will work best for you depends both on your medical condition and your personal preferences, and your sleep specialist will help you pick the ideal treatment option to meet your needs.

For patients with mild sleep apnea, the best form of treatment may simply be a mouthpiece, combined with changes in lifestyle. On the other hand, patients that experience more severe sleep apnea will likely be most effectively treated with a CPAP or with surgery.

In some cases, your issues with daytime fatigue may come from sources other than Sleep Apnea, and if your Apnea Therapy isn't providing you the results you need, it's likely that you aren't allowing yourself adequate rest. You need seven to eight hours to become fully rested, and some patients actually need more.

If the combination of sleep and medical treatment aren't effective, you and your sleep specialist will have to explore other potential options.

Adopting Healthier Habits to Encourage Better Sleep

For patients that only have light sleep apnea, you may actually recover from your condition simply by altering your habits and lifestyle in order to improve your sleep.

  • If you suffer from a stuffy nose due to allergies or other conditions, use medications or nasal sprays to improve your condition

  • Make the effort to sleep on your side. Obstructive Sleep Apnea is most commonly an issue when a patient sleeps on his or her back. There are shirts and pillows that can inhibit back-sleeping and help alter your habits.

  • If you are overweight, make the effort to lose the weight and reach a healthier weight. Soft tissue can inhibit airways, making it harder to breath during sleep.

  • Don't take medications that cause you to become sleepy, and limit your use of alcohol, entirely if necessary. Depressants cause your airway to become more restricted because the muscles relax.

  • If you are a tobacco user, stop smoking.

  • For some patients, a simple device known as an oral appliance can mitigate the effects of sleep apnea. It can also be used for snorers.

In regard to mouthpieces, you can actually visit an orthodontist or dentist, that can built you a mouthpiece designed specifically for your mouth to increase airflow. This mouthpiece will open your mouth very slightly, preventing your tongue and your jaw from getting in the way of your breathing.

Breathing Devices for Sleep Apnea

For patients that have more troublesome sleep apnea, there are medical devices that promote airflow by actively circulating air, keeping the airway open. The most prescribed treatment for more severe sleep apnea is the CPAP. There are two types of CPAP. The most common device utilizes a mask which covers your nose and mouth, but some devices just introduce airflow through the nose. This product provides a slow and steady stream which delivers air to the throat. In doing so it makes it easier to breath.

It's important to recognize that snoring and sleep apnea are related but not identical health conditions. Just because you are no longer snoring doesn't mean that you no longer need your CPAP or have been cured of your condition. Sleep Apnea is chronic and moderate to severe sleep apnea will return if you suspend treatment.

Under most circumstances, a professional will visit your home in order to prepare the CPAP for use, dependent upon the recommendation of your physician. It's also important to recognize that your condition may change over time, and this might necessitate changing the settings on your CPAP periodically to improve air flow. Of course, this should only be done by your sleep doctor.

Some people experience side-effects as a result of using a CPAP. Most common side effects include headache, dry mouth, skin irritation, and stuffy or dry nasal passages. Also, if the CPAP isn't programmed correctly, it can lead to stomach discomfort and bloating.

For the most part, these side-effects can be easily treated, helping you to get the most out of your CPAP device. It's important to be open with your sleep doctor and the tech that comes to your home to make sure that your CPAP treatment is optimal.

For patients that experience issues with runny or dry nasal passages, there are ways to increase the moisture content of the air to improve response. Also, you may benefit from choosing a mask that fits your face more securely.

Most patients that use CPAP find that the device improves their sleep quality and their energy levels and are satisfied with the treatment.

Sleep Apnea Surgery

In major cases of Sleep Apnea, the patient may benefit most from surgery. The form of surgery required depends on the specific cause of Obstructive Sleep Apnea. In general, the goal of Sleep Apnea Surgery is simply to open airways more securely. This can be done by removing, stiffening, or shrinking soft tissue in the throat and mouth, and can also be accomplished by adjusting the jaws to increase airflow.

Soft tissue surgery can be done either as an outpatient procedure or at a hospital. If the goal is simply to shrink soft tissue, it may simply require an injection or other form of treatment, rather than surgery. If the goal is to increase the thickness of the tissue, the surgeon may make a small incision and place a bit or sterile, hard plastic into the tissue.

If the goal of the surgery is strictly tissue removal, this form of treatment will only be provided at a hospital, and you will require anesthesia. After treatment, there is a chance that you will experience pain of the throat for seven to fourteen days. Finally, pediatric patients may benefit from tonsil removal, which is a common and standard surgery.


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