How to diagnose sleep apnea is a common concern from many patients in our practice. According to Kiran Tipirneni, M.D., F.A.C.S., a board-certified otolaryngologist at the Ear, Nose, Throat & Plastic Surgery Associates, the only real way to know if you have sleep apnea is to have a sleep study. But there are some simple clues people can look out for on their own.

“Sleep apnea can be diagnosed with something as simple as someone observing you while you sleep to see what happens,” says Dr. Tipirneni. “Most of the time, patients will come in to see me because their spouse or significant other will tell them first of all that they are snoring very loudly. But the second thing is that at times they are pausing their breathing. When we see that, it means we need to investigate further.”

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Diagnose Sleep ApneaSleep apnea is a common disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep. Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes. They often occur 5 to 30 times or more an hour. Typically, normal breathing then starts again, sometimes with a loud snort or choking sound.

Sleep apnea usually is a chronic (ongoing) condition that disrupts your sleep. If left untreated, it may place you at a higher risk of developing other severe medical conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, or stroke.

The pauses in breathing during sleep can keep you from getting restful sleep, causing you to be tired or sleepy the next day. Sleep apnea is one of the leading causes of excessive daytime sleepiness and affects as many as 18 million people.

What Are Sleep Apnea Symptoms?

Like snoring, the most definitive sign of sleep apnea—waking up to breathe—is often witnessed by a bed partner. People with sleep apnea frequently wake up for a few seconds to gasp for air. According to Dr. Tipirneni, this can happen hundreds of times a night in people with severe sleep apnea.

“Sleep apnea can vary in range and spectrum from just mild to moderate snoring, to periods where patients stop breathing at night,” he says. “And that’s referred to as obstructive sleep apnea – a medical condition where people do not get enough airflow to their lungs at night. And it can lead to other medical conditions down the road.”

Major signs and symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Loud and chronic snoring, snorting, or grunting while asleep
  • Choking, snorting, or gasping during sleep
  • Long pauses in breathing
  • Daytime sleepiness, no matter how much time you spend in bed
  • Throat weakness

How is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?

Dr. Tipirneni points out that small amounts of pausing during breathing can be normal. But if it’s anything beyond that then your ear, nose and throat doctor will need to do a sleep study to find out if you have significant sleep apnea. 

“A sleep study is done at a sleep center where you spend the night,” says Dr. Tipirneni. “It’s basically like a hotel room setting, and they’ll put monitors on you while you sleep. They measure various things, such as your heart rate, oxygen levels, brainwaves, respiratory rate, and different physiological functions. Based on that, we can figure out where on the scale you fit, if you have snoring, or mild, moderate, or severe obstructive sleep apnea.”

“Many insurance companies now have people do home sleep studies,” Dr. Tipirneni continues. “And those are nice because you get to do it in your own bed. They bring you all the equipment, teach you how to use it, you sleep with it for one night, and then they take the equipment back from you and send us a report. From that data, we can decide if you do have sleep apnea and how we can treat it.”

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