Talking With Your Doctor About Sleep Apnea

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Your doctor can’t tell by looking at you—or even performing blood tests or X-rays—that you have sleep apnea. He or she must rely on you to provide information about your symptoms and your health. Here’s how to get the conversation started, and what points to discuss along the way.

Share Your Concerns—And Your Family’s

Sometimes, sleep apnea causes signs you’ll spot during the day. For instance, you may have excessive sleepiness, headaches in the morning, trouble concentrating, or a dry mouth and sore throat when you wake up. Discuss these issues with your primary care doctor openly and honestly.

Try keeping a sleep diary for 10 days to two weeks. Note what time you went to bed, when you got up, and how many times you woke up during the night. Share this log with your doctor. It may help him or her get to the root of your problem. Also, bring information about all the medicines you take, including over-the-counter supplements. Some may contribute to sleep problems.

Since sleep apnea involves a pause in your breathing during the night, you may not even realize it’s happening. Sometimes, your bed partner or family members are the first to notice you snoring, gasping, or failing to breathe at night. Listen carefully to their descriptions and share them with your doctor, too. You might even consider having someone record your breathing at night.

5 Things You Didn't Know About Sleep Apnea

Ask If You Need a Sleep Study

The only way to diagnose sleep apnea is through a sleep study. During this test, you’ll either spend the night in a sleep center or get special equipment to monitor your sleep at home. While you doze, a professional called a sleep technologist keeps tabs on your heart rate, breathing, and brain patterns.

Sometimes, your primary care doctor will order a sleep study. In other cases, he or she may refer you to a sleep specialist with extra training in apnea and other sleep disorders. If you visit your primary care doctor first, ask, “Do you think I should see a specialist for this problem? If so, which one?”

Understand Your Diagnosis

Just knowing you have sleep apnea isn’t enough. Ask your doctor, “What do you think is causing my condition?” Many factors can contribute to sleep apnea:

  • Being overweight may cause fat tissue to thicken the wall of your windpipe, decreasing the amount of air that can get through.
  • The shape of your head, neck, tongue or tonsils may mean extra tissue hangs or presses into your airway.
  • Your throat muscles or your tongue may relax too much at night, blocking your breathing.

Identifying the source of your problem can help you choose the best treatment. For instance, losing weight may help resolve sleep apnea if you’re heavy. But if the problem is related to relaxed muscles, you may need to choose another option.

Explore Your Treatment Options

Left untreated, sleep apnea can cause serious health problems, including heart attacks and strokes. So it’s critically important to undergo treatment after you receive a diagnosis.

Many different types of doctors treat sleep apnea, including primary care doctors, neurologists, otolaryngologists (ear, nose and throat doctors), and dentists. Each may specialize in a different type of treatment. 

For instance, dentists often fit you for a device that moves your jaw while you sleep. Primary care doctors and sleep specialists may recommend a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. You’ll wear a mask at night while the machine gently pumps air into your nose and mouth, keeping your airways open. 

But no matter which doctor you see, request that he or she outline all your options. Ask the following questions to determine the best treatment for you: 

  • How long will it take me to get used to this treatment? (Dental devices and CPAP machines may feel uncomfortable at first.) 
  • How much will this treatment cost? Are there less expensive options to try first?
  • How will this treatment help my sleep apnea? What’s the success rate for your patients?
  • If lifestyle changes—such as weight loss—may help, is there anything else I should do in the meantime?
  • What should I do if I can’t use this treatment every day?

Ask About Follow-Up

No matter which treatment you choose, you will probably need follow-up visits to make sure it’s working. Ask your doctor how often, and when, you need these appointments. Also, find out what to do if you have questions or concerns in the meantime.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 5

  1. Getting a diagnosis. American Sleep Apnea Association. www.sleepapnea.org/treat/diagnosis.html

  2. Sleep apnea—diagnosis. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. http://sleepeducation.com/sleep-disorders/sleep-apnea/diagnosis

  3. Sleep apnea: overview. American Academy of Family Physicians. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/sleep-apnea.printerview.all.html

  4. Talking with your doctor about sleep. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. www.fmcsa.dot.gov/safety-security/sleep-apnea/drivers/talk-with-doctor.aspx.

  5. Treating sleep apnea: a review of the research for adults. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. http://effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/index.cfm/search-for-guides-reviews-and-reports/?pageaction=disp....

  6. What is sleep apnea? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sleepapnea.

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