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Which Doctors Can Diagnose or Treat Sleep Apnea?

Published February 18th, 2022 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by
Jacqueline Hensler
Medically Reviewed:
Erik Rivera

Sleep Apnea 101 | Symptoms | Diagnosis and Treatment | Doctor

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that can affect you and prevent you from getting a quality night of sleep. When you have sleep apnea, you have periods while asleep when you stop breathing which are called apneas. If you are one of the millions of people who suffer from it, you know how disruptive and dangerous it can be so it is important to find a doctor who can diagnose or treat sleep apnea. In this article, we will discuss which doctors can diagnose sleep apnea and what treatments are available if you  have this sleep disorder.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that is characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep, which can lead to snoring and restless sleep. It can also cause other health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart attack, and heart disease. The cause of sleep apnea depends on what type you have, as it can be categorized into three different types of sleep apnea which are obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and complex/mixed sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of sleep apnea and occurs when there is an obstruction or blockage in your airway that interferes with breathing. Central sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that occurs when the brain fails to send the appropriate signals to the muscles that control breathing which will cause apnea episodes. Complex or mixed sleep apnea is a combination of obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

sleep apnea doctor

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

The symptoms of sleep apnea can vary depending on the type of sleep apnea you have, but two of the most common symptoms include pauses in breathing while you sleep and gasping or choking after these episodes. Other effects of sleep apnea include loud snoring, difficulty staying asleep which is called insomnia, restless sleep, and morning headaches due to a lack of oxygen while you sleep. Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) is also a symptom of sleep apnea, as sleep deprivation can lead to fatigue and drowsiness. In turn, being tired during the day can cause other signs of sleep apnea such as mood swings, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and even accidents while driving or operating heavy machinery. Sleep apnea also may cause you to wake up with a dry mouth or sore throat. If you have these symptoms but haven't been diagnosed with sleep apnea we recommend that you talk to your doctor or healthcare provider.

What kind of doctor can diagnose and treat sleep apnea?

There are a few different types of doctors that can diagnose or treat sleep apnea and we will detail them all below.

Primary care doctors

Primary care physicians can diagnose sleep apnea and prescribe sleep studies with a specialist in order to evaluate your sleep quality. These doctors can also treat sleep apnea depending on the type of sleep apnea you have. For example, if you suffer from obstructive sleep apnea and have loud snoring and morning headaches, a primary care doctor may be able to prescribe a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine or other treatments.

Pulmonologists

Pulmonologists are doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating lung diseases such as sleep apnea. These doctors can order sleep studies, diagnose sleep apnea, and prescribe treatments for sleep apnea. If you have central sleep apnea or complex sleep apnea, a pulmonologist may be the best doctor to treat your sleep apnea.

Otolaryngologists

An otolaryngologist also called an ear, nose, and throat doctor is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating medical problems in those areas. These doctors can order sleep studies, diagnose sleep apnea, and prescribe treatments for sleep apnea. If your sleep apnea is caused by an obstruction in your airway, an otolaryngologist may be the best doctor to treat your sleep apnea.

Neurologists

Neurologists are doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating diseases of the nervous system and brain. These doctors can order sleep studies, diagnose sleep apnea, and prescribe treatments for sleep apnea. If you have central sleep apnea or complex sleep apnea, a neurologist may be the best doctor to treat your sleep apnea as it could be your brain not sending the correct signals to your muscles to breathe.

Dentists

Dentists are doctors who specialize in oral health and can treat sleep apnea caused by an obstruction within the mouth or airways that interferes with breathing. A dentist may also be able to prescribe a sleep study if necessary, but often dentists do not diagnose sleep disorders themselves and will send you to a specialist.

Sleep specialists

Sleep specialists are doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating sleep disorders. These doctors can order sleep studies, diagnose sleep apnea, and prescribe treatments for sleep apnea. These are often the specialists other doctors will send you to if they suspect sleep apnea. They also are the doctors who perform sleep tests and can diagnose the results.

Mental health professionals

Mental health professionals such as psychiatrists are doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating mental illnesses. These doctors can help you alter behavioral patterns such as the cessation of drinking alcohol or smoking and being overweight which can all be risk factors for sleep apnea. They also help you with any mental health problems you may have due to lack of sleep such as depression.

Surgeons

Surgeons are doctors who specialize in surgical procedures. If sleep apnea is caused by a physical obstruction, such as enlarged tonsils, the excess soft tissue in your throat muscles, or your adenoids, a surgeon may be able to remove the obstruction and cure your sleep apnea.

Which doctor should I see for sleep apnea?

If you have any of the symptoms of sleep apnea, we recommend visiting your primary care doctor. If your sleep apnea is caused by an obstruction in your airway, they may refer you to an otolaryngologist. If you have central sleep apnea or complex sleep apnea, a neurologist may be the best doctor to treat your sleep apnea. However, sleep specialists are doctors that specialize in sleep apnea and can diagnose it as well as prescribe treatment and your primary care doctor will often send you to them for diagnosis via a sleep test.

How do doctors diagnose sleep apnea?

The two most common ways to diagnose sleep apnea are using a sleep study or an at-home sleep test. Sleep studies are done in a sleep lab, also called a sleep center or sleep clinic, and consist of sleep specialists hooking you up to various devices to monitor you while you sleep. An at-home sleep study kit is a sleep test that can be done in your own home without the help of sleep specialists using a portable sleep monitor with the results being sent to a sleep specialist. An overnight sleep study is more accurate in diagnosing sleep apnea, but an at-home sleep test is more convenient and can be used if you cannot do a sleep study for some reason.

What treatments are there for sleep apnea?

There are many treatments for sleep apnea, and the best treatment for you will depend on what is causing your sleep apnea. Let's take a look at the common treatment options for sleep apnea below.

CPAP machine

A CPAP machine also called a constant positive airway pressure machine, is the most common treatment for sleep apnea. A CPAP machine is a device that blows air into your nose, mouth, or both while you sleep and keeps your airway open, preventing sleep apnea from occurring.

Other positive airway pressure machines

CPAP machines are not the only machines that use positive airway pressure to help your sleep apnea. BiPAP, which stands for bilevel positive airway pressure, APAP, or automatic positive airway pressure, and ASV, or adaptive servo-ventilation, machines are also used and administer different pressures depending on your breathing. These machines are often used if a CPAP machine isn't effective.

Oral appliances

An oral appliance is a dental device that fits in your mouth and moves your jaw forward to keep your airway open. Dentists can fit sleep apnea patients for oral appliances and sleep specialists can also prescribe them. Oral appliances are for mild to moderate sleep apnea and can be used in conjunction with positive airway therapies.

Surgery

If sleep apnea is caused by an obstruction, surgery may be able to remove the obstruction and cure your sleep apnea. The most popular surgeries for sleep apnea include a tonsillectomy, uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP), and maxillomandibular advancement. These surgeries are usually only done if sleep apnea is caused by an obstruction and are not as common as other treatments. Surgery is usually the last resort for sleep apnea and should only be done if all other treatments have failed. There are also surgical procedures that can implant a signaling device in your chest, similar to a pacemaker, that sends signals to another device in your upper airway which stimulates the muscles that control breathing.

Weight loss

If you are overweight, losing weight can help to cure your sleep apnea. Losing weight decreases the risk for sleep apnea such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity, and sleep apnea often improves or goes away completely after weight loss.

Sleep position therapies

Changing your sleep position can also help to cure sleep apnea. Sleeping on your back allows the tongue and soft tissues in the back of your throat to collapse that can cause an airway obstruction, which is why sleep apnea is more likely to occur while you are in this position. Sleeping on your side can help keep the airway open and decrease sleep apnea.

Summary

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes you to stop breathing during sleep and affects millions of people worldwide. There are quite a few treatments and the best treatment of sleep apnea for you will depend on what is causing your sleep apnea. CPAP machines are the most common treatment, but there are other positive airway pressure machines, oral appliances, surgery, weight loss, sleep position therapies, and other treatments that can also help. Many different types of doctors can help diagnose or treat sleep apnea and which one you should see is dependent on what is causing it. If you have any other questions please talk to your doctor or healthcare provider about diagnosis and the best treatment option for you.

References and Sources:

American Sleep Apnea Association 

Houston Methodist 

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