How is a Sleep Apnea Diagnosis Made?

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  • Written By: Steve R.
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 17 March 2019
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A sleep apnea diagnosis generally can be made following a sleep study, which is when medical professionals monitor a person’s breathing while he is asleep. One of the most common sleep studies is the polysomnogram, a test that examines an individual’s brain activity, eye moment, and the amount of oxygen in his blood during sleep. A determination on whether a person needs a sleep study is usually made after a consultation with a primary care doctor, based on a patient’s medical and family history, as well as a physical exam.

Sleep apnea is a common condition in which a person continually stops breathing for short periods of time while he is asleep, preventing him from getting quality sleep and causing him to feel tired during the day. When making a diagnosis, the doctor will ask the patient about his sleep patterns and if he feels tired during the day. The doctor also will want to know whether the patient snores at night, which is often an indication of sleep apnea. Often times the physician will recommend keeping a sleep diary, where a person journals about his quality of sleep and how tired he feels during the day. A sleep journal is usually kept for about two weeks.


An initial consultation with a primary care doctor to determine a sleep apnea diagnosis includes a physical exam. During the exam, the physician will check the patient’s mouth, nose, and throat. Also, the physician will look to see if the patient is obese or has a wide neck, which are physical indicators for the sleep disorder. Adults with the sleep disorder will typically have an oversized uvula, which is the tissue that is found in the back of the throat, or a soft palate, which is the roof of the mouth in the back of the throat.

If the physician thinks a person may have sleep apnea, the doctor will recommend a sleep study to get an accurate sleep apnea diagnosis. Typically, sleep studies are performed at a sleep center or sleep lab, which requires a person to stay overnight. During the sleep study, sensors are connected to the patient’s face, chest, fingers, and scalp.

Throughout the night, a person’s breathing and blood oxygen levels are monitored and sleep experts will track how many times a patient stops breathing for more than 10 seconds. Typically, if a patient has more than five instances in an hour where he stops breathing for more than 10 seconds, the sleep apnea diagnosis is confirmed. More than 15 episodes in an hour of stopping breathing for longer than 10 seconds is considered severe sleep apnea.



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