Sleep Apnea (Diagnosis & Treatment)

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep. People with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep, sometimes hundreds of times. This means the brain — and the rest of the body — may not get enough oxygen.

Untreated sleep apnea prevents you from getting a good night’s sleep. When breathing is paused, you’re jolted out of your natural sleep rhythm. As a consequence, you spend more time in light sleep and less time in the deep, restorative sleep you need to be energetic, mentally sharp, and productive the next day.

This chronic sleep deprivation results in daytime sleepiness, slow reflexes, poor concentration, and an increased risk of accidents. Sleep apnea can also lead to serious health problems over time, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and weight gain.

Major signs and symptoms of sleep apnea

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

Other common signs and symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat
  • Morning headaches
  • Restless or fitful sleep
  • Insomnia or nighttime awakenings
  • Going to the bathroom frequently during the night
  • Waking up feeling out of breath
  • Forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating
  • Moodiness, irritability, or depression

Signs and symptoms of sleep apnea in children

While obstructive sleep apnea can be common in children, it’s not always easy to recognize. In addition to continuous loud snoring, children with sleep apnea may adopt strange sleeping positions and suffer from bedwetting, excessive perspiration at night, or night terrors. Children with sleep apnea may also exhibit changes in their  daytime behavior, such as:

  • Hyperactivity or inattention
  • Developmental and growth problems
  • Decrease in school performance
  • Irritable, angry, or hostile behavior
  • Breathing through mouth instead of nose


The primary objective test for obstructive sleep apnea is polysomnography, also referred to as a sleep study. This test measures different physical and physiological parameters while a subject is asleep. During attended polysomnography, a technician observes a person sleeping and monitors recording equipment in the setting of a sleep laboratory.

With advancements in equipment, at home sleep tests are currently becoming an acceptable alternative to a sleep lab study for diagnosis of sleep apnea.  This may be an ideal option for those patients opposed to a sleep lab test.



Self-help treatment options for sleep apnea

While a diagnosis of sleep apnea can be scary, it is a treatable condition. In fact, there are many things you can do on your own to help, particularly for mild to moderate sleep apnea. Home remedies and lifestyle modifications can go a long way in reducing sleep apnea symptoms.
Lifestyle changes that can help sleep apnea

  • Lose weight. Some people find that even moderate to severe sleep apnea can be completely corrected by losing excess weight. For others, even a small amount of weight loss can open up the throat and improve sleep apnea symptoms.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking is believed to contribute to sleep apnea by increasing inflammation and fluid retention in your throat and upper airway.
  • Avoid alcohol, sleeping pills, and sedatives, especially before bedtime, because they relax the muscles in the throat and interfere with breathing.
  • Avoid caffeine and heavy meals within two hours of going to bed.
  • Maintain regular sleep hours. Sticking to a steady sleep schedule will help you relax and sleep better. Apnea episodes decrease when you get plenty of sleep.

Bedtime tips for preventing sleep apnea

  • Sleep on your side. Avoid sleeping on your back, as gravity makes it more likely for your tongue and soft tissues to drop and obstruct your airway.
  • Try the tennis ball trick. In order to keep yourself from rolling onto your back while you sleep, sew a tennis ball into a pocket on the back of your pajama top. Or wedge a pillow stuffed with tennis balls behind your back.
  • Prop your head up. Elevate the head of your bed by 4 to 6 inches or elevate your body from the waist up by using a foam wedge. You can also use a special cervical pillow.
  • Open your nasal passages. Try to keep your nasal passages open at night using a nasal dilator, saline spray, breathing strips, or a neti pot.


Medical treatment options for sleep apnea

CPAP for sleep apnea

Continuous Positive Airflow Pressure, or CPAP for short, is the most common treatment for moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea. In many cases, you’ll experience immediate symptom relief and a huge boost in your mental and physical energy. The CPAP device is a mask-like machine that provides a constant stream of air which keeps your breathing passages open while you sleep.

Dental devices and surgery for sleep apnea

If you’ve tried CPAP and self-help tips and your sleep apnea persists, you may benefit from a dental device or surgical treatment.

Dental devices for sleep apnea

Most dental devices are acrylic and fit inside your mouth, much like an athletic mouth guard. Others fit around your head and chin to adjust the position of your lower jaw. Two common oral devices are the mandibular repositioning device and the tongue retaining device. These devices open your airway by bringing your lower jaw or your tongue forward during sleep.

Surgery as treatment for sleep apnea

If you have exhausted other apnea treatment options, you may want to discuss surgical options with your doctor or sleep specialist. Surgery can increase the size of your airway, thus reducing your episodes of sleep apnea.

The surgeon may remove tonsils, adenoids, or excess tissue at the back of the throat or inside the nose. Or, the surgeon may reconstruct the jaw to enlarge the upper airway. Surgery carries risks of complications and infections, and in some rare cases, symptoms can become worse after surgery.