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Diagnosing and Treating Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

What to Expect

If you suspect that you might have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), your healthcare provider will ask you questions about your sleep and health habits. He or she will also physically examine you to look for risk factors, including anything that might make your upper airway smaller. Because obstructive sleep apnea runs in families, they may ask questions about your family history of sleep problems. The doctor will carefully review all of the medication you take to see how they might affect your sleep. You'll also be asked questions about your symptoms, as well as your sleep habits. Asking about how much sleep you get, how long it takes to fall asleep and whether you sleepwalk or talk will help the doctor spot any other sleep problems you might have. If your healthcare provider thinks that you may have obstructive sleep apnea, they may send you for a diagnostic test.

How Obstructive Sleep Apnea Is Diagnosed

Your obstructive sleep apnea can be diagnosed either by visiting a laboratory for a sleep test (polysomnogram or PSG) or, more commonly, by using a portable sleep apnea test at home (Home Sleep Apnea Test or HSAT]). If a laboratory sleep test is ordered by your doctor, you are hooked up to equipment that monitors your heart, lung, and brain activity, breathing patterns, arm and leg movements, and oxygen levels while you sleep. If you stop breathing during sleep, you may be diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. This test can determine how serious your obstructive sleep apnea is based on how many times you stop breathing per hour of sleep.

The HSAT often can be done at home. Someone will teach you how to put on the device before you sleep. These tests typically collect less information than a laboratory sleep test and only monitor if you stop breathing. The at-home test also might miss mild cases of obstructive sleep apnea. If you have many risk factors and symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea and the at-home test doesn't pick up your obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor may still want you to be tested in a sleep laboratory.

How Obstructive Sleep Apnea Is Treated

There are several ways to treat obstructive sleep apnea. No matter what treatment you choose, your doctor may want you to do a follow-up sleep study to make sure your obstructive sleep apnea is under control.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP): CPAP is a machine that gently blows air into your airway to keep it open while you sleep. You wear a mask that either fits into your nostrils, over your nose and/or over your mouth. Because CPAP works so well, it's often the first treatment your healthcare provider will have you try. It should be used every night for the best treatment.

Oral Appliances (OAs): OAs can treat mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea and also can be used if you can't wear a CPAP. OAs are dental devices that open your throat by bringing your jaw forward while you sleep.

Surgery: If other treatment options are not right for you, you may be given surgical options. Obstructive sleep apnea surgery reduces the tissue in the back of your throat, pulls your tongue forward, and inserts a nerve stimulator to open your airway so you can breathe easier while sleeping.

Lifestyle Changes: Your doctor often will recommend that you make some lifestyle changes along with other treatments.

  • Weight loss: Losing just 10 percent of your body weight can improve your sleep apnea. Sometimes losing weight may even cure obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Avoid alcohol and some medications: Your doctor may recommend that you stop drinking alcohol, or taking certain pain or sleeping medications. These substances can make obstructive sleep apnea worse.
  • Quit smoking: This may improve your obstructive sleep apnea because cigarette smoke can increase swelling in your airway.
  • Don't sleep on your back: Sleeping on your back may make your obstructive sleep apnea worse.

    This content was developed in partnership with the CHEST Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the American College of Chest Physicians.

    Last updated April 5, 2018.

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