How Is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2020

It is estimated that at least 25 million adults in the United States have obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is one of the most common sleep disorders.1,2

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a condition in which breathing stops for short periods during sleep. These periods last 10 seconds or longer. People with sleep apnea tend to snore loudly. They may also make gasping or choking noises in their sleep.3,4

Sleep apnea causes low oxygen levels in the blood and poor sleep. Left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to heart disease, diabetes, strokes, and more.4,5

First step in a sleep apnea diagnosis

Your doctor may suspect obstructive sleep apnea if you report feeling very sleepy or falling asleep during the day. This is especially true if you are also overweight, male, over age 40, or your sleep partner says that you snore, snort, gasp, or choke in your sleep.6

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Physical exam and medical history

The first step in diagnosing sleep apnea begins with a physical exam and medical history. These steps will help make sure your symptoms are not caused by another health condition.

Your doctor will probably also ask you a series of questions from one of several tests used to help diagnose sleep apnea. These questionnaires include the:7

  • STOP-Bang test
  • Epworth Sleepiness Scale

Some of the questions you may be asked include:7

  • Do you snore loudly enough to be heard through closed doors?
  • Does your partner elbow you to get your breathing started or to stop snoring?
  • How often do you feel tired or sleepy during the day?
  • Do you have high blood pressure?
  • Is it hard for you to stay awake when watching TV, reading, or on long drives?
  • Do you take naps? How often and for how long?
  • Do you feel physically or mentally exhausted?

A sleep study in a lab

A home sleep apnea test or laboratory sleep study will also be needed to diagnose sleep apnea.7

A full lab test at a sleep clinic is called polysomnography and the results of that test are called a polysomnogram. A sleep study measures different body functions while you sleep, or try to sleep. During a laboratory sleep study, doctors measure brain waves, oxygen levels in the blood, heart rate, breathing, body position, body temperature, and any eye, leg, or arm movements. The brain wave recordings allow the technologist and doctor to analyze your sleep stages and sleep cycles. Video may be used to record sound and movements.

Sometimes one night’s sleep provides enough evidence to diagnose a sleep disorder. Other times, 2 or more nights may be needed to figure out what is causing your sleep problems.

A lab sleep study may be needed for people in certain high-risk jobs or if your doctor suspects you have more than 1 sleep disorder. It is possible to have sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy, sleep-wake disorder, sleep-related epilepsy, or sleep-related asthma.7,8

Home sleep apnea test

A home sleep apnea test may be a good option for people who do not have a complicated case, who live far from a sleep center, or who may have moderate to severe sleep apnea.

A home sleep apnea test is prescribed by your doctor. You either pick up the kit at your doctor’s office or it is delivered to your house. You will get directions on how to use the kit. While convenient, home sleep tests do not provide as much, or as detailed, information as a study done in a sleep lab.9

Sleep apnea treatment options

Sleep apnea can be treated with a combination of lifestyle changes, devices to help breathing, weight loss, and sometimes surgery.10