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Canadian Med Center

A Guide to Sleep Apnea: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Management

Monday 4 March 2024
Sleep Apnea
8 minute(s) read

Table of Contents

I. What is Sleep Apnea?

II. Sleep Apnea Diagnosis

III. Sleep Apnea Treatment

IV. Conclusion

A good night's rest allows us to wake energized and ready to take on the day. So, when a condition like sleep apnea makes this a challenge, it's important to start looking into improving our sleep quality.

In this guide, we’ll dive into sleep apnea. We’ll explore what it is, how it’s diagnosed, treatment options, and practical lifestyle changes to manage it.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder characterized by repeated pauses in breathing during sleep. These pauses, known as apneic events, can last for 10 seconds or longer and occur multiple times per hour, depending on the severity of the condition. [1]

There are three types of sleep apnea, each with its characteristics:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common type. It occurs when the muscles in your throat relax during sleep, blocking the airway. This causes breathing to stop, leading to lower oxygen levels and higher carbon dioxide. Your brain senses this and wakes you up briefly to resume breathing, often with a loud snore or choking sound.
  • Central sleep apnea (CSA) happens when your brain fails to signal your breathing muscles to inhale. This results in breathing pauses during sleep.
  • Complex sleep apnea is a combination of obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. It usually occurs when someone with OSA begins treatment with a positive airway pressure machine like a CPAP. Introducing air pressure can alter the nature of their sleep apnea, leading to a combination of obstructive and central events. [1]

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Have you ever woken up feeling unrested, even after getting a full night of sleep? Or maybe you’ve been told that you snore loudly or stop breathing in your sleep? These could be signs of sleep apnea.

You may not realize this is occurring since it happens while you're asleep. This is why it’s important to involve your partner in recognizing the symptoms of sleep apnea:

  • Disruptive snoring that disturbs your partner
  • Restless sleep with frequent tossing and turning
  • Sudden awakenings, sometimes to use the bathroom
  • Waking up with a dry or sore throat
  • Morning headaches
  • Excessive daytime fatigue or sleepiness
  • Problems with concentration, memory, or mood [1]

If any of these issues sound familiar, pay attention to them. Talk to your doctor about getting tested for sleep apnea. Diagnosing the problem is an important first step toward treatment and better rest.

Health Complications of Sleep Apnea

If you think you may have sleep apnea, it's important to talk to your doctor right away. Untreated sleep apnea can lead to serious health problems down the road.

  • High blood pressure: Around half of people with obstructive sleep apnea also have high blood pressure. The pauses in breathing stress the cardiovascular system, which can increase blood pressure. [2]
  • Heart disease: Oxygen deprivation and disrupted sleep can cause abnormal heart rhythms, increasing the risk of issues like heart failure and coronary heart disease. Studies show sleep apnea patients have a two to four times higher risk of abnormal rhythms and a 140% increased risk of heart failure. [3]
  • Stroke: Sleep apnea and stroke have a two-way relationship. Sleep apnea raises your risk of having a stroke, but having a stroke also makes you more likely to develop temporary sleep apnea afterward. Up to 70% of stroke survivors are affected by sleep apnea. [4]
  • Type 2 Diabetes: Diabetes and sleep apnea often co-occur. If you have one condition, it's also important to monitor for the other. About half of people with diabetes also have sleep apnea. [5]

Sleep Apnea Diagnosis

an elderly man consulting with a doctor

If you suspect that you may have sleep apnea, it is crucial to have a conversation with your doctor about your symptoms. To diagnose sleep apnea, your doctor will conduct a two-part evaluation, which includes a medical history and health examination, as well as a sleep study. [7]

Medical History and Physical Exam

Initially, your doctor will review your medical history and perform a physical exam. To validate your answers, they may also speak to your partner. Sometimes, patients do not recall their symptoms during the night or downplay their daytime tiredness, so insights from their partners can be invaluable.

Your doctor may ask you questions such as:

  • Are you frequently tired during the day?
  • Has anyone observed you stop breathing while you are asleep?
  • Do you have high blood pressure?
  • Does your snoring reach a volume that can be heard through closed doors? [7]

In addition to these questions, your doctor will look for other risk factors associated with sleep apnea, including:

  • Body Mass Index (BMI) over 35
  • Age over 50
  • Neck circumference greater than 17 inches in males and 15 inches in females
  • Male gender
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Stroke
  • Pulmonary hypertension
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Type 2 diabetes [7]

Sleep Apnea Test

If the assessment indicates that you may have sleep apnea and no other underlying medical conditions are causing your symptoms, your doctor will recommend either an at-home sleep apnea test or an in-lab sleep apnea test.

  • An at-home sleep apnea test involves wearing a small device that monitors your breathing, oxygen levels, and heart rate while you sleep. This device can detect any interruptions in breathing or drops in oxygen that may indicate sleep apnea. Additionally, you may be asked to keep a sleep diary, noting details such as your bedtime, frequency of waking up, and when you rise in the morning. This information provides your doctor with insights into your sleep patterns.
  • An in-lab sleep study (polysomnogram) is an overnight test at a clinic that involves board-certified sleep specialists attaching sensors to your face, scalp, chest, and legs. These sensors will monitor and record various aspects of your sleep, including brain waves, oxygen levels, heart rate, breathing pattern, and limb movements. [8]

Following the sleep study, your doctor can determine whether you have sleep apnea. If a diagnosis is confirmed, they will work with you to create a personalized treatment plan tailored to your specific needs and circumstances.

Sleep Apnea Treatment

a man using a CPAP machine

If you've been diagnosed with sleep apnea, there are several effective treatment options to help you breathe easier at night. Finding the right therapy tailored to your needs and sleep habits is key. Your doctor can guide you through the various sleep apnea treatments and help determine the best fit.

  • Positive airway pressure (PAP) machines: PAP machines like CPAP and BiPAP provide a constant airflow through a mask while you sleep. The air pressure prevents your airway from collapsing so you can breathe freely at night. While it may take some getting used to, many people find great relief sleeping with PAP therapy.
  • Oral appliances: These devices reposition your jaw or tongue to keep your airway open during sleep. A mandibular repositioning device gently moves your lower jaw forward while a tongue-retaining device pulls your tongue forward. Both work to prevent obstruction and allow for smooth, uninterrupted breathing.
  • Surgery: This may be recommended if other treatments are not successful in managing your symptoms. Surgery aims to widen air passages so you can breathe easier at night. [9]

The benefits of diagnosing and treating sleep apnea extend beyond a good night's sleep. By getting the rest your body needs, you can:

  • Improve heart health
  • Lower stroke risk
  • Lower daytime sleepiness
  • Improve mental health
  • Decrease snoring [10]

Lifestyle Changes to Manage Sleep Apnea

To manage your sleep apnea symptoms effectively, it’s important to make lifestyle changes in addition to using CPAP therapy or oral appliances. Developing good sleep habits and an overall healthy lifestyle can significantly improve your sleep quality and reduce apneic events.

  • Avoid sleeping on your back: This position causes the tongue and tissues to collapse into the airway and block breathing. Side or stomach sleeping opens the airway more. Experiment to find the best position for you. [11]
  • Add humidity: Dry air exacerbates sleep apnea symptoms like dry mouth, sore throat, and congestion. If using a CPAP machine, adjust the built-in humidifier to add moisture. You can also add a humidifier to the bedroom for extra relief. [12]
  • Exercise and eat healthy: There's a two-way relationship between excess weight and sleep apnea. Extra neck fat constricts breathing, and poor sleep increases hunger hormones, causing weight gain. Losing just 10% of body weight can significantly improve symptoms. [13]
  • Quit smoking: Chemicals in cigarettes irritate airways, causing inflammation and swelling that restricts breathing. Quitting improves airflow. [13]


If you have been experiencing symptoms like loud snoring, daytime fatigue, or difficulty concentrating, sleep apnea may be the cause. This serious sleep disorder can take a significant toll on your health and quality of life if left untreated. The good news is that you can get relief with proper diagnosis and management. Contact a sleep specialist who can work with you to create a treatment plan.

To learn more about sleep apnea, visit our sleep apnea blog

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.