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How Is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose sleep apnea based on your medical and family histories, a physical exam, and results from sleep studies. Usually, your primary care doctor evaluates your symptoms first. He or she then decides whether you need to see a sleep specialist.

These specialists are doctors who diagnose and treat people with sleep problems. Such doctors include lung, nerve, or ear, nose, and throat specialists. Other types of doctors also can be sleep specialists.

Medical and Family Histories

Your doctor will ask you and your family questions about how you sleep and how you function during the day. To help your doctor, consider keeping a sleep diary for 1 to 2 weeks. Write down how much you sleep each night, as well as how sleepy you feel at various times during the day.

You can find a sample sleep diary in the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's "Your Guide to Healthy Sleep."

Your doctor also will want to know how loudly and often you snore or make gasping or choking sounds during sleep. Often you're not aware of such symptoms and must ask a family member or bed partner to report them.

If you're a parent of a child who may have sleep apnea, tell your child's doctor about your child's signs and symptoms.

Let your doctor know if anyone in your family has been diagnosed with sleep apnea or has had symptoms of the disorder.

Many people aren't aware of their symptoms and aren't diagnosed.

Physical Exam

Your doctor will check your mouth, nose, and throat for extra or large tissues. The tonsils often are enlarged in children with sleep apnea. A physical exam and medical history may be all that's needed to diagnose sleep apnea in children.

Adults with the condition may have an enlarged uvula or soft palate. The uvula is the tissue that hangs from the middle of the back of your mouth. The soft palate is the roof of your mouth in the back of your throat.

Sleep Studies

A sleep study is the most accurate test for diagnosing sleep apnea. It captures what happens with your breathing while you sleep.

A sleep study is often done in a sleep center or sleep lab, which may be part of a hospital. You may stay overnight in the sleep center.

Polysomnogram

A polysomnogram (poly-SOM-no-gram), or PSG, is the most common study for diagnosing sleep apnea. This test records:

A PSG is painless. You will go to sleep as usual, except you will have sensors on your scalp, face, chest, limbs, and finger. The staff at the sleep center will use the sensors to check on you throughout the night.

A sleep specialist reviews the results of your PSG to see whether you have sleep apnea and how severe it is. He or she will use the results to plan your treatment.