Sleep apnea: Diagnosis

4min reading
Sleep apnea: Diagnosis

If you have some of the symptoms of sleep apnea but you don’t know what to do about it, read on. Traditionally, to find out whether or not they had sleep apnea, people needed to go to sleep clinics where they would spend the night under clinical observation. This involved doing a test called a polysomnography. It involves being hooked up to machines that measure a range of factors including breathing, movement, and brain activity. With the resulting data, sleep specialists are able to diagnose sleep apnea. Unfortunately, there tends to be a long waiting list for these facilities. Luckily, thanks to Dreem’s cutting edge technology, detecting breathing irregularities can now be as simple as wearing a headband to bed for a few nights, all in the comfort of your own home. Even better, ongoing tracking allows you to see how your breathing evolves over time. 

Sleep apnea: Diagnosis by questionnaire

Designed and used by health professionals, sleep questionnaires can evaluate sleep quality, daytime sleepiness and sleep apnea. These are generally included in a stay at a sleep clinic but are also freely available online. Here are the two most commonly used of them:

  • Epsworth test: This questionnaire measures daytime sleepiness and sleep conditions. It provides a score of between 0 and 24. If you score 16 or over, it’s best to consult your doctor for further information.
  • Berlin questionnaire: This 10-question survey detects sleep apnea through questions about your sleep habits. It also asks for your Body Mass Index (BMI).  

These sleep scales are considered medically relevant. However, if you have symptoms, these questionnaires should not substitute medical consultation. You can always bring them along to discuss the results with your doctor. The second disadvantage of using these questionnaires is that they are based on subjective data. This means that the answers you provide are based solely on your own feelings. Sleep clinics and the Dreem headband, on the other hand, provide objective data. By detecting the presence, severity and frequency of breathing irregularities during your sleep, the headband provides objective data that is far more reliable than a subjective scale. 

Sleep apnea: Diagnosis by a medical professional 

If you’ve filled out the questionnaires and your results indicate that you may have sleep apnea, it’s best to seek advice from a specialised medical professional. 

Outpatient diagnosis

A pulmonologist can prescribe an outpatient sleep apnea test, to be carried out at home. 

This involves a ventilatory polygraph, which records breathing during the night. Subsequently, any breathing irregularities detected can be analysed for their severity and frequency. This analysis is then used to determine an appropriate treatment for sleep apnea. 

Sleep clinic

Sleep apnea can be diagnosed at a sleep clinic. This isn’t always the most convenient option since there is a shortage of clinics so the waiting lists are long. In addition, people need to spend two nights at the clinic to get a good reading on their sleep. Clinics carry out two types of tests:

  • Ventilatory polygraph: this technique allows specialists to diagnose sleep apnea by monitoring and analysing breathing as described in the outpatient sleep apnea test.
  • Polysomnography: full sleep recording with analysis of breathing and brain activity. You can get an appointment for this kind of test following a consultation with a pulmonologist or an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist.


Sleep apnea is widely underdiagnosed. Diagnosis requires monitoring and analysis of breathing irregularities. Specialised medical professionals can make a diagnosis of sleep apnea after monitoring a person’s sleep for two nights at a dedicated sleep clinic. Online questionnaires provide subjective data based on a person’s answers. The Dreem headband provides a convenient way to analyse breathing irregularities based on data collected over seven nights. It also provides ongoing tracking that can reveal the impact of various behaviours or treatments on breathing irregularities from week to week. 

Main takeaways

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

Sleep apnea is detected using self-report questionnaires and polysomnography tests at sleep clinics. Alternatively, the Dreem headband or a ventilatory polygraph prescribed by a pulmonologist can be used to detect breathing irregularities at home.

How do sleep apnea diagnostic tests compare?

Questionnaires are quick and simple but are purely subjective. Polysomnography tests are accurate but require two nights in a sleep clinic and waiting lists can be long. Ventilatory polygraphs and the Dreem headband allow you to detect breathing irregularities during sleep in the comfort of your own home.

Why is it important to diagnose sleep apnea?

In as many as 90% of cases sleep apnea goes undetected. Diagnosis can rule out other sleep disorders and provide the basis for effective treatment.

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