Sleep apnea is a tricky condition—the main symptoms often happen when you aren’t awake to notice them. Untreated sleep apnea can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness and is associated with long-term health complications, so it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis if you want to start sleeping easier.
Some patients only find out they have sleep apnea after a bed partner tells them about snoring or disrupted breathing at night, or after having an overnight sleep study done in a hospital or sleep center.
But how do you tell if you have sleep apnea if you live alone or if you don’t want to participate in a sleep study? Let’s discuss the different ways doctors diagnose this condition—and talk about how your dentist can help during treatment.
What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is more than just loud snoring. In fact, some patients with sleep apnea don’t even snore at all.
Sleep apnea is a disorder that occurs when someone stops breathing or breathes very shallowly while asleep. These periods of disrupted breathing may last only a few moments or up to several minutes. These disruptions are often followed by episodes of loud snoring, but not always.
This condition is categorized into three types:
- Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). The most common form of sleep apnea, OSA happens when throat muscles relax and block airways at night.
- Central sleep apnea (CSA). CSA is very rare. It occurs when the brain’s signals get disrupted and don’t reach your breathing muscles. CSA may be connected to a history of heart attacks or strokes, or neurological conditions like Parkinson’s, but can also occur in otherwise healthy individuals.
- Mixed sleep apnea (also called complex sleep apnea). Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of OSA and CSA.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
It can be difficult to tell if you snore if you live alone or can’t participate in a sleep study, so here are some other indicators that you may be experiencing sleep apnea:
- Waking up frequently during the night (especially waking up gasping or choking)
- Waking up with a dry mouth or throat
- Waking up with a headache
- Feeling like you regularly have poor quality sleep
- Feeling excessively tired or sleepy during the day, even if you get a full night’s sleep
Who’s at Risk for Sleep Apnea?
Anyone may suffer from sleep apnea, but there are certain risk factors that make some groups of people more susceptible to this condition. These risk factors include:
- Family history of sleep apnea. Genetics play a role in OSA, so talk to your family members to see if they’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea.
- Large neck circumference. Someone with a wider/thicker neck may have more fat around their airways, which can cause pressure at night and disrupt breathing.
- Age. Sleep apnea is more common in older men and women, and the risk of developing OSA can increase with age. However, this condition can still occur in people of any age or gender.
- Hormonal imbalances. Those with conditions like hypothyroidism and acromegaly may be at an increased risk.
- Certain neurological conditions. Neurological conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s may put some at risk for developing CSA.
3 Ways Sleep Apnea Can Be Diagnosed Without a Sleep Study
Doctors have a few different ways to diagnose sleep apnea, one of which is through a sleep study. A sleep study (also called a polysomnogram) involves staying overnight at a sleep center or lab that has equipment to monitor your breathing.
But sleep studies may be inconvenient for patients who feel uncomfortable spending nights away from home or don’t have a lab nearby. Fortunately, there are other ways for doctors to diagnose you. A doctor might:
- Examine you and evaluate your symptoms. Doctors can check your airway for blockages or look for swelling. They can also help rule out other possible conditions. Licensed dentists, like our team here at Muscaro & Martini Dentistry, can also help screen you for sleep apnea and provide recommendations.
- Use an app. There are a variety of different smartphone apps that can be used to track snoring. These apps usually work by recording you at night and detecting loud sounds. However, these apps can’t detect sleep apnea that occurs without snoring and may also pick up other sounds, like traffic noise.
- Prescribe an at-home sleep test. An at-home test involves using a small monitoring device to measure your heart rate, airflow, and breathing patterns. They can’t always accurately detect some cases, though, so your doctor may use this in combination with other screening methods.
We’ve talked before about the best sleep apnea treatment options. In summary, there are four main treatments that doctors and dentists recommend to manage this condition.
- Oral appliances. These are simple, removable devices that are similar to bite guards used for teeth grinding. Oral appliances for sleep apnea hold the jaw or tongue in place to prevent them from obstructing the airways. At Muscaro & Martini Dentistry, we recommend oral appliances for eligible patients.
- PAP machines. Positive airway pressure (PAP) devices can be used at night to promote airflow with the help of a special mask. The most common type is the CPAP machine, but there are also APAP and BiPAP devices. PAP devices can be effective, but bulky and uncomfortable for some people to wear.
- Sleep habit & lifestyle changes. Some patients find relief by sleeping only on their sides, losing body fat, and exercising more. However, sleep apnea may persist even with lifestyle changes, so it’s important to talk to a doctor if you have trouble controlling your sleep apnea.
- Surgery. Sometimes, sleep apnea can be caused by inflammation in the tissue in the back of the throat or by a deviated septum. Surgery can help correct these issues but is typically only a final option only when other solutions haven’t worked.
How a Sleep Apnea Dentist Can Help
At Muscaro & Martini Dentistry in South Tampa, Florida, we’re passionate about helping our patients find relief from their sleep apnea symptoms. We help fit patients with oral devices that are convenient and easy to use—and can help when other treatment options haven’t.
To learn more about how we can help you manage your sleep apnea, schedule an appointment today or read the cutting-edge treatment options we provide on our sleep apnea page. We look forward to seeing you and helping you get a more restful night’s sleep!