Dr. Anna Charbonneau

Therapy for people living with stress, depression, and medical conditions

Do You Have Sleep Apnea? Here's How to Find out

by Dr. Anna Charbonneau | Tags: sleep, physical health

Last post, we reviewed what sleep apnea is, risk factors for getting sleep apnea, and what it feels like to have sleep apnea. Today we're going to discuss how you can find out whether you have sleep apnea.

If you think you have sleep apnea, the very best thing you can do for yourself and your health is to get a simple test and get treatment if you need it. The amazingly good thing about having sleep apnea these days is that modern technology has made testing for and treating sleep apnea easy and painless.

Tests For Sleep Apnea

What does a test for sleep apnea measure?

Testing for sleep apnea is painless and should not disturb your ability to sleep. When thinking about getting a medical test, it's normal to be nervous. Knowledge is power. Knowing what all those wires and sensors are for will help take some of the fear out of the thought of getting testing for sleep apnea.

So let's go through what types of bodily functions are measured during a test for sleep apnea and how they're measured.

All tests for sleep apnea measure your breathing and your heart rate at. Most evaluations will also measure something called your "blood oxygen saturation" levels and your brain activity while you're sleeping.

That can be quite a lot to wrap your mind around, so let's break it down.

Breathing Your lungs are responsible for exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide. To do this, your body needs to pull air into your lungs and push air out. Your diaphragm, which is a sheet-like muscle right under your lungs, is responsible for that pull-push process. When you breathe in, your diaphragm contracts down (it shapes down into a U shape, like a smiley face) and pulls air into your lungs. When your diaphragm relaxes, it arcs up (like a rainbow) and pushes air out of your lungs.

In sleep apnea, if your throat relaxes, your airway can get cut off. Effectively, this is like putting a kink in a garden hose. No air will get through. An evaluation for sleep apnea usually includes a measurement for your breathing or airflow.

Heart rate Your heart is responsible for circulating blood throughout your body. If your heart rate is too high or too low, a test for sleep apnea will pick this up. If your body is distressed, as will happen if your breathing stops, your heart rate will increase.

Heart rate is usually monitored through a small clip on your hand or finger. The clip is usually about the size of a small clothes pin and should rest comfortable on your finger. It will be tight enough to stay connected to you, but not so tight that it pinches or hurts.

Blood oxygen levels Have you ever heard the phrase, it's not the fall that kills you, it's the impact? Well, the same is true. It's not the lack of breathing that will kill you, it's the lack of oxygen in your blood.

Your blood is responsible for transporting oxygen around your body to cells and organs. There are simple tests to measure how well oxygenated your blood is. That means they can figure out how much oxygen your blood is carrying. This test is also sometimes referred to as "oxygen saturation" or o-sat for short.

Blood oxygen levels can be measured in the same way (often with the same device) as heart rate.

Brain waves During good healthy sleep, your brain waves naturally shift through cycles. We'll learn more about healthy sleep cycles later. For now, just know that in someone with sleep apnea, these natural healthy cycles can be disrupted.

Your brain activity can be measured by placing sensors, called electrodes, on your scalp. These sensors are "read-only". This means that these sensors can only pick up information, they cannot pass any signals back into your body. The sensors are placed on your head, usually with a small bit of gel, and do not hurt or poke into your skin.

With sleep apnea, when enough air isn't getting in, your blood oxygen levels will drop.Your brain, that handy organ which is always monitoring for emergencies like this, will rouse your body enough to solve the problem. Some people just shift, snort, or gasp without waking up. Some people wake up gasping. Often times your heart rate will go out and your brain activity will change.

This is why high blood pressure, snoring, and waking up gasping are all major signs that someone might be experiencing sleep apnea.

If you have sleep apnea, your brain and body are never getting the rest you need, even if you feel like you are sleeping many hours. This is exhausting. It can make every other physical health and mental health condition worse. Sleep apnea can worsen chronic pain, fibromyalgia, depression, and anxiety, just to name a few.

If you have risk factors or signs of sleep apnea, the very best thing you can do for yourself is to get a simple test.

Next up, we're going to go over in fine detail what the two tests for sleep apnea are, what they involve, and how long they take.