Diagnostic and Management of Sleep Apnea

Sleep is essential for your physical health and emotional wellbeing. Everyone experiences occasional sleep problems, but if you experience sleep problems repeatedly, it could indicate an underlying health problem. Sleep disorders are problems associated with sleeping, including difficulty falling or staying asleep through the night, feeling sleepy during the day, or waking up feeling exhausted. Because of lack of sleep you may find it difficult to concentrate and perform activities of daily living. This lack of sleep can lead to depression, mood swings, or other health problems.

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder in which breathing stops or gets very shallow during sleep. These breathing pauses last between 10 to 20 seconds or more. Apnea causes sleep disruption as a result of reduced oxygen level in the blood.


The types of sleep apnea include:

  • Central sleep apnea: This type of apnea is the least common and occurs when brain signals aren’t sent properly to the muscles involved in breathing.
  • Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea and occurs because of airway obstruction preventing sufficient flow of air. In this condition the brain signals are not interrupted however the muscular efforts to breathe will be unsuccessful.
  • Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of both central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea.

Risk factors

Sleep apnea can develop in anyone at any age, even in children. However, you are at higher risk for sleep apnea if you are:

  • male, overweight, and over the age of 40,

Physical traits that can raise your risk include:

  • having a large neck ,
  • nasal obstruction,
  • large tonsils,
  • large tongue,
  • or a small jaw bone.

Other risk factors include a family history of sleep apnea, or Gastroesophageal reflux or GERD.


The common symptoms of sleep apnea include daytime sleepiness, weakness, repeated naps, headaches, irritation, sleeplessness (insomnia), waking up with a sore or dry throat, poor memory and concentration, and snoring.

Most people with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) often snore loudly. Immediate or abrupt awakening that may be accompanied by shortness of breath could be an indication of central sleep apnea.

Complications of sleep Apnea

If left untreated sleep apnea can lead to complications such as hypertension, heart failure, heart rhythm disturbances, diabetes, depression, heart attacks, and stroke.

People with sleep apnea also have an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents from driving and poor performance at work or school. Children with untreated sleep apnea can exhibit problems in attention and hyperactivity.


Your doctor will diagnose sleep apnea based on your signs and symptoms, your medical and family histories, a physical examination, and test results from sleep studies. Your doctor will make an evaluation and may refer you to a sleep specialist for testing and further evaluation.

Sleep studies are tests that monitor what happens to your breathing while you sleep. The most common sleep studies are:

Polysomnogram (PSG): A PSG is the most commonly used test in the diagnosis of sleep apnea. This test records brain activity, eye movement, oxygen and carbon dioxide blood levels, heart rate and rhythm, breathing rate and rhythm, the flow of air through your mouth and nose, and body muscle movements.

Home-Based Portable Monitor: Your doctor may provide you a home based portable monitor to diagnose sleep apnea. These tests usually involve measurement of airflow and breathing patterns. Your doctor may use these results to find out whether you require a full PSG study in a sleep center.


Sleep apnea may be treated by:

Behavior Modification : This therapy includes losing weight if overweight; avoiding alcohol or sedative medications, stopping smoking, and changing sleeping positions.

Dental devices: These are devices that hold the jaw forward and may be used for mild snoring and in people who have not responded to behavioral changes.

Medications: Nasal steroid sprays may be used to decrease inflammation in the nasal passages. Decongestant nasal sprays and drops are prescribed to relieve the stuffy nose. These medicines shrink the swollen blood vessels in the lining of the nose and help to improve snoring resulting from nasal congestion. Medications may also be used to increase daytime wakefulness in people with sleep apnea.

Nasal continuous positive airway pressure: Nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is a face mask device worn during sleep that prevents narrowing of the airway during inspiration and expiration by providing persistent increased air pressure. Another similar option is a “bi-level positive airway pressure (BiPAP)” in which the face mask allows for two different alternating pressures: one with inhalation and one with exhalation.

Surgical Treatment

Surgery may be considered to correct sleep apnea if you have a deviated nasal septum, enlarged tonsils, or a small lower jaw.

Nasal surgery: Nasal surgery is done to remove any nasal polyps present or to straighten a deviated nasal septum.

Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP): Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty is the surgical removal of excess tissue from the back of the throat and palate to widen your airway. The procedure removes the tonsils, the uvula, and trims the palate of excess tissue.

Maxillomandibular advancement: Maxillomandibular advancement is a procedure which moves your upper (maxilla) and lower (mandible) jaws forward. This enlarges the space behind the tongue and soft palate and opens the airway.

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder in which a person's airway collapses and breathing is interrupted during sleep. There are various treatment options to reduce the symptoms of sleep apnea. Mild forms of sleep apnea can be treated by behavioral modifications and changing sleeping positions. Other cases of sleep apnea can be treated by using devices that help keep your airways open while asleep. In some cases, surgery may be recommended. Your doctor will discuss the best options for your particular situation.

Sleep Medicine of the Brain, Spine & Nerves