Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes a person to repeatedly stop breathing during sleep. It is a common condition that affects an estimated 22 million Americans.
This figure comes from the American Sleep Apnea Association.
Some potential symptoms of sleep apnea include:
- chronic snoring
- choking or gasping during sleep
- stopping breathing temporarily during sleep
- disturbed sleep
- excessive daytime sleepiness
- difficulties with concentration and memory
- morning headaches
This article outlines the different types of doctors who may diagnose and treat sleep apnea. We also provide information on the various methods for testing and describe some of the treatment options available.
Most people raise concerns about sleep apnea with their doctor. The doctor will ask the person about their symptoms and medical history and may conduct a physical examination.
Once the doctor has completed their assessment, they may refer the person to a somnologist, a doctor who specializes in the study and treatment of sleep disorders.
Somnologists perform sleep studies to monitor what happens in a person’s brain and body while they sleep. These studies can help diagnose sleep disorders and determine their cause.
Other medical specialists that may be involved in the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders include:
A pulmonologist is a doctor who specializes in the lungs and respiratory system. Respiratory conditions can cause or exacerbate sleep apnea. Examples of such conditions include:
A pulmonologist will work to diagnose and treat respiratory conditions. Successful treatment may prevent future episodes of sleep apnea.
Otolaryngologists are doctors who diagnose and treat issues relating to the ears, nose, and throat. People may refer to them as ENTs.
Other conditions an ENT may look for when diagnosing sleep apnea include:
- obstructed nasal airways
- deformities of the nose or septum
- a long, soft palate or uvula
- excessive throat tissue, such as large tonsils
- an upper respiratory infection
A neurologist is a doctor who specializes in disorders of the brain and nervous system. According to Neurology Clinical Practice, sleep apnea can sometimes occur due to a neurological condition, such as:
A psychiatrist is a doctor who specializes in the study and treatment of mental health conditions.
A 2018 article indicates that some symptoms of depression may be symptoms of sleep apnea. These include:
- daytime fatigue
- low energy levels
- poor concentration
A dentist may notice risk factors for sleep apnea, such as small airways or other anatomical differences, during a dental examination. The dentist can then recommend that a person visit their doctor for a possible sleep apnea diagnosis.
A person who has suspected sleep apnea may undergo a sleep study or polysomnogram. The sleep study involves a range of tests to help diagnose sleep apnea or determine the cause.
A person may undertake a sleep study in a sleep lab or their home.
According to the ASAA, sleep studies that take place in a lab may involve the following tests:
- Electroencephalogram (EEG): This measures electrical activity in the brain.
- Electrooculogram (EOG): An EOG measures eye and chin movements that signal different sleep stages.
- Electrocardiogram (EKG): This is a test that measures heart rate and rhythm.
- Respiratory inductance plethysmography: This test uses bands around the chest and abdomen to measure a person’s breathing patterns and lung volume.
- Monitoring: A doctor will use special sensors to measure and monitor the following:
- leg movement
- levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood
According to one article, home tests are usually for people who have risk factors for sleep apnea but are at low risk of other sleep disorders or medical conditions.
There are many treatments available for a person with sleep apnea. The type of treatment a person receives will depend on the underlying cause of their sleep apnea. We outline some potential treatment options below.
Positive airway pressure therapy
Positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy involves using a machine that blows pressurized air into a person’s airways to stop them from collapsing. The device comes with a face mask, which the person wears at night.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, there are several types of PAP therapy, including:
- Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP): CPAP devices blow air of the same pressure into a person’s airways during inhalation and exhalation.
- Autotitrating positive airway pressure (APAP): APAP devices provide the same air pressure during inhalation and exhalation. However, the pressure can vary during episodes of sleep apnea or snoring.
- Bilevel positive airway pressure (BPAP): BPAP devices blow higher pressure air into a person’s airways when they breathe in, and lower pressure air when they breathe out.
Expiratory positive airway pressure
Expiratory positive airway pressure (EPAP) treatment involves applying an adhesive valve inside the nostrils. The valves help the nostrils to stay open during exhalation. This keeps the airways open until a person then inhales. However, doctors do not use this therapy very often.
Oral pressure therapy
Oral pressure therapy (OPT) involves wearing a mouthpiece during sleep. A small vacuum in the mouthpiece helps reposition the tongue and soft palate, thereby opening the person’s airways. Doctors do not use this therapy very often.
Oral appliances are devices that move the tongue or lower jaw upward and forward. This movement helps to increase the size of the upper airway, helping the person to breathe. Doctors may consider using these devices to treat people who have mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea without oxygenation problems
A dentist trained in sleep medicine will make a custom fit oral appliance for a person to wear during sleep.
Hypoglossal nerve stimulation
Hypoglossal nerve stimulation (HGNS) is a sleep apnea treatment that doctors typically reserve for those who have not found success with other treatments.
HGNS involves the implantation of a nerve stimulator into a person’s chest. Leads connect the stimulator to a breathing sensor and to the hypoglossal nerve, which controls tongue movement.
During sleep, the HGNS system monitors a person’s breathing and stimulates the hypoglossal nerve during inhalation. The stimulation of the nerve helps to ensure the person’s airways remain open.
In some cases, a person may require surgery to treat their sleep apnea. The type of surgery a person receives will depend on the cause of their sleep apnea. Some examples include:
- Tonsillectomy: This involves an operation to remove large and obstructive tonsils.
- Jaw surgery: A surgeon might move the jaws forward to enlarge the upper airway.
- Tracheostomy: This surgery involves making a hole through the person’s neck and into their windpipe to help them breathe. Though this procedure bypasses the obstruction, doctors do not often use it or recommended it for treatment.
The following lifestyle changes could help a person manage their sleep apnea:
According to the American Lung Association (ALA), a person may want to ask their doctor the following questions regarding sleep apnea:
- What is the most likely explanation for my symptoms?
- Which tests do I need to determine if I have sleep apnea, and how should I prepare for the tests?
- What are my treatment options, and what is their likelihood of success?
- What changes can I make to improve my sleep apnea?
- What are the possible complications if I do not receive treatment for sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a condition in which a person repeatedly stops breathing during sleep. Because sleep apnea occurs during sleep, a person may be unaware that they have the condition.
People who are concerned about sleep apnea should see their doctor. In some cases, the doctor may refer the person to a somnologist or another medical specialist who can help with diagnosis and treatment.
The type of treatment a person needs will depend on the underlying cause of their sleep apnea. Some potential treatment options include positive airways pressure devices, oral appliances, and surgery.