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Diagnosing Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that involves chronic breathing disruptions and snoring. This condition occurs in two primary types. Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common form, involves throat-muscle relaxation that creates complete or partial blockage of the upper airway. In contrast, central sleep apnea occurs when the brain does not signal the respiratory muscles to breathe for several seconds or more. Diagnosing sleep apnea is based on a combination of your and your family's medical history, a physical exam, and the results of a sleep study.

If you think you have a sleep problem, keeping a sleep diary for a few weeks can be helpful for you and for your doctor. Be sure to note in this diary how you sleep, function during the day, and whether you snore, choke, or gasp in your sleep. Bring this sleep diary to your appointment with your primary-care physician to assess your symptoms in light of your personal and familial medical histories. He or she will examine your mouth, nose, and throat for excess or enlarged tissue. Based on your doctor's exam and assessment of your medical history, he or she can then advise you about seeing a sleep specialist or other medical professional for further evaluation.

For most patients who present with sleep apnea symptoms, doctors will recommend a sleep study before giving any formal diagnosis. These studies are monitored by technicians to measure how well you sleep and how your body reacts to sleep issues. Sleep specialists generally administer a polysomnogram (PSG) to record heart rate, brain activity, blood-oxygen levels, eye movements, and blood pressure during sleep. Alternatively, your specialist may advise a home-based portable monitor to record similar information to a PSG, such as heart rate, chest movements, blood-oxygen levels, and nasal airflow. Based on the results of these assessments, your medical team can ascertain whether you have sleep apnea and plan your treatment accordingly.

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