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How and Why is Sleep Apnea Misdiagnosed?

Last Updated on October 27, 2023

Written by Rachael Gilpin

Disclaimer – Nothing on this website is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment… Read More Here.

Sleep apnea affects about 30 million people1 in the United States, though just 6 million of those people are formally diagnosed. This condition – in which the sleeper starts and stops breathing throughout the night – can be dangerous if left untreated. So, why is there such a gap in the number of people who have it, and the number of people who are diagnosed?

A big reason for this diagnosis gap is that sleep apnea shares many symptoms with some other common ailments, such as depression. Another reason sleep apnea is misdiagnosed is that males and females exhibit symptoms differently, and oftentimes, our current tests fail to detect sleep apnea in females. In this article, we’ll get into the details about these common reasons for misdiagnosis, as well as how sleep apnea can affect your overall health.

Similarities Between Sleep Apnea and Depression Symptoms

Sleep apnea and depression share many similar symptoms. Additionally, studies2 indicate a mutual relationship between sleep apnea and depression, meaning, a person with depression is more likely to have sleep apnea than someone who doesn’t experience depression. This mutual relationship goes both ways; someone with sleep apnea is more likely to be depressed than someone who doesn’t have sleep apnea1.

The overlapping symptoms of sleep apnea and depressive disorders can lead to both or either condition going untreated, or treated in a way that makes symptoms worse. This misdiagnosis may lead to life-threatening consequences.

Common Overlapping Symptoms Include:

  • Headaches3
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness4 after a full night of sleep
  • Concentration issues3
  • Fatigue3
  • Sleep deprivation3
  • Insomnia3
  • Negative thoughts or feelings of hopelessness3

For many of us, we can wind up exhausting ourselves, neglecting health conditions, and not taking time off to rest, so we often write off feelings of tiredness as typical side effects of being overworked and moody. However, this exhaustion can indicate sleep apnea, depression, or, about 18 percent5 of the time, both.

Awareness of sleep apnea and depression and the various ways they may present may help you avoid misdiagnosis. Therefore, it is important to consult medical professionals, along with being educated on both of these conditions.

Get More Info: 5 Signs You May Have Sleep Apnea

The Concurrent Appearance of Sleep Apnea and Depression

Oftentimes, a person can simultaneously deal with depression and a type of sleep apnea, whether it be obstructive, central, or complex. As mentioned, about 18 percent of people with depression have sleep apnea, and about 18 percent of people with sleep apnea have depression5. This overlap of conditions can create a challenge when it comes to diagnosing either one.

The problem with this overlap is that some treatments for depression might make sleep apnea worse. For example, some antidepressants can exacerbate symptoms of sleep apnea, like trouble breathing6. This is why experts recommend that depression must be ruled out before treatment can be implemented for obstructive sleep apnea5.

Conversely, one study7 points out that some obstructive sleep apnea patients who present depression symptoms see a major decrease in their depression symptoms when they use CPAP therapy.

The bottom line is, determining whether the patient has depression, sleep apnea, or a combination of the two, is important in order to establish the appropriate treatment route. For this reason, consulting doctors with experience discerning between the two may help with a correct diagnosis.

Complex Sleep Apnea in Women and Misdiagnosis in the Female Population

To help physicians diagnose sleep apnea, the Apnoea-Hypopnea Index8 (AHI) was created. Unfortunately, this index is not as accurate when it comes to diagnosing sleep apnea in females because the bulk of scientific research9 on sleep apnea over the years has been conducted on males only.

This gender-biased research means that numbers and figures are specific to male bodies, and not other genders9. As a result, the AHI highly favors the male experience over the female experience, yet not all genders exhibit symptoms of sleep apnea in the same way9.

For example, episodes of breathing pauses and upper airway resistance in females frequently fail to meet the AHI criteria10 for apneas, because those criteria were determined by male bodies.

Here’s what happens: The AHI measures the number of times a person’s breathing pauses or their airways collapse, along with the amount of time these pauses or collapses happen during one hour of sleep. For male bodies, this must occur for at least 10 seconds11 and be correlated with a decrease in blood oxygen levels — however, this number is lower for females.

This difference leads to female symptoms not falling within the range of an official sleep apnea diagnosis, despite the life-threatening nature of the condition.

Symptoms in Females Often Appear Differently Than in Males

As covered, females typically don’t present sleep apnea symptoms as strongly as males do, which is a significant reason why sleep apnea regularly goes undiagnosed and untreated in females.

Further, females commonly report different outwardly presenting symptoms altogether. For example, females with sleep apnea tend to present more disruptive nighttime symptoms12 than males, like restless legs, insomnia, nightmares, palpitations, depression, or hallucinations. Males with sleep apnea, however, note more apneic episodes and snoring12— issues that are more traditionally associated with complex sleep apnea.

Women More Likely to be Misdiagnosed with Mental Health Issues

Another reason females may be misdiagnosed for sleep apnea is that they are more likely to be diagnosed with something in the realm of mental health instead. This misdiagnosis is not because females have more mental health issues than males; rather, it seems to be13 because females seek treatment for mental health concerns more than males do. This is largely due to socialization and cultural norms, in which females are taught earlier on to talk about their feelings, and males are taught to suppress emotions13.

When females present with symptoms that are common among both depression and sleep apnea, like insomnia, depressive feelings, and feeling unrested, instead of speaking to a sleep expert, they are more likely to seek treatment from a psychiatric professional and receive a diagnosis: depression.

While depression can occur comorbidly with sleep apnea, failure to identify sleep apnea can lead to females experiencing long-term complications from the condition. Ironically, this may even lead to the development of depression over time, due to their lack of proper sleep apnea treatment2.

Other Reasons For a Misdiagnosis

Some studies theorize that females are less likely to report chronic or loud snoring in themselves, possibly not recognizing that it indicates a severe problem12. Further, females’ breathing issues may be more subtle due to differences in anatomy between females and males, causing issues to go unidentified. For example, the airway length, tongue, soft palate, and total amount of tissue in the throat are smaller in females compared to males12. Fat is also distributed in the body differently in females versus males, which plays a major role in obstructive sleep apnea12.

Additionally, females usually attend clinical appointments independently, whereas males often bring their partner — leading to a more thorough assessment due to two people reporting symptoms rather than one12.

Even though sleep apnea misdiagnosis is more common in females than males, it can and does happen to people of any sex or gender. Requesting an overnight sleep study assessment in a sleep lab may be helpful in correctly identifying the problem.

If you are having trouble with snoring at night, check out our list of best mattresses for snoring.

Sleep Apnea, Cardiovascular Health, and Heart Disease

Not treating sleep apnea significantly increases the likelihood of cardiovascular disease14 and heart arrhythmias. Obstructive sleep apnea, in particular, is correlated with higher blood pressure, stroke, and coronary artery disease15.

One common underlying issue related to sleep apnea that we haven’t yet discussed in detail, but that is very important, is obesity. Obesity is frequently linked to both sleep apnea and heart disease.

Just like sleep apnea and depression are often interrelated, so are sleep apnea, obesity, and heart disease. Obesity on its own can be a cause of heart disease. In fact, according to the National Institute for Health and Care Research, obese people are two and half times more likely to develop heart disease than healthy people of normal weight16.

Read more about the link between obesity and sleep.

However, obesity is also a common precursor to severe sleep apnea because an increase of fat deposits in the neck and throat17 area can wind up blocking the upper air passage during sleep.

Research18 suggests roughly 41 percent of adult obstructive sleep apnea cases, including 58 percent of moderate to severe cases, are due to being overweight or obese.

This interrelation of sleep apnea and obesity both leading to heart disease can make for a “chicken or the egg” situation. Is the obesity causing the sleep apnea? Is the sleep apnea then causing the heart disease? Or is the obesity causing the heart disease directly?

Either way, in cases when obesity and sleep apnea are both present, weight loss is the recommended course of treatment, for both managing sleep apnea symptoms19 and reducing the risk of heart disease20.

How to Avoid a Sleep Apnea Misdiagnosis

Relying on someone else to diagnose a condition can feel hopeless when you’re not a trained professional. However, some simple education on your symptoms could help.

Request a Polysomnography

Physicians will occasionally recommend doing an overnight sleep study, otherwise known as polysomnography21, to help in correctly identifying sleep apnea. Polysomnography is when a person will spend the night at a sleep center or a special unit at a hospital; this type of comprehensive examination typically involves being hooked up to various wires and machines to track your brain waves21.

A polysomnography records blood oxygen levels, heart rate, brain waves, body movements, and breathing21. In addition to assisting with a sleep apnea diagnosis, this sort of sleep test may also reveal whether or not you need to adjust your current treatment21. At-home sleep studies are available; however, they are limited in identifying problems because they lack some of the comprehensive tools used in a designated lab21.

For example, at-home sleep studies can underestimate the severity of sleep apnea or even miss the diagnosis entirely. According to the University of Michigan22, at-home sleep studies are best for diagnosing people with moderate to severe sleep apnea, and they can give false negative results, especially for those who have fewer overt symptoms.

Your most reliable results will be obtained by doing an overnight sleep study in a laboratory.

Keep In Mind The Overlapping Symptoms of Depression and Sleep Apnea

Educating yourself and remaining aware of how closely related sleep apnea and depression symptoms are can be key to deciphering between the two. Sleep apnea can cause headaches, tiredness, restless legs, insomnia, fatigue, and negative feelings — which are all common symptoms of depression as well3.

Staying aware of the closely linked symptoms may save you unnecessary treatment for the wrong condition.

Take extra steps if you’re a female

As we’ve seen, there is a higher proportion of misdiagnosis for females with sleep apnea than for males12. This misdiagnosis can be attributed to several reasons, including females more commonly seeking treatment for mental health, symptoms presenting differently, and certain sleep apnea tests being more designed for a male body.

Because of this high rate of misdiagnosis, if you’re a female-bodied person (regardless of how you gender identify), and you believe you have sleep apnea, be sure to advocate for yourself and get the appropriate tests. Your symptoms are more likely to be diagnosed as another condition, and undergoing a sleep study can help narrow down your issue.

Discuss Issues with Both a Sleep Specialist and Psychiatrist

Consulting both a sleep specialist and a psychiatrist may be a wise avenue in seeking treatment. Many psychiatrists are well-versed in sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, but some are not.

Likewise, sleep specialists may be more highly skilled and attuned to the nuances of sleep apnea, but less familiar with psychiatric issues. This way, consulting both types of specialists can help you determine where your symptoms originate, and what the best course of treatment is.

Be sure to find a qualified sleep specialist, experienced in complex, obstructive, and central sleep apnea. This knowledgeable professional may make the difference between a correct diagnosis or not, saving you time and suffering.

You may want to take a look at our recommended mattresses for sleep apnea.

Seek a Second or Third Opinion

For individuals who have sought out treatment and have yet to find a successful remedy, it may be beneficial to seek a second or even third opinion. Unfortunately, physicians and nurses don’t always inquire about sleep or psychological symptoms, so finding an alternative professional who is well-versed in sleep apnea or depression could be worth your while.

Final Word of Advice

Not only can sleep apnea lead to worse sleep, but it also increases your risk of long-term health complications. As such, it’s important to get formally diagnosed in order to access the optimal treatment. The difficulty with sleep apnea, however, is that sometimes it can present similarly to other health issues, which is why misdiagnosis can occur.

Understanding sleep apnea and its symptoms can give you the helpful knowledge you need so that you can consult a medical professional if needed. However, we also advise getting an extra opinion if you feel that you may be misdiagnosed.

Rachael Gilpin

Rachael Gilpin

Content Writer

About Author

Rachael is a content writer for Sleep Advisor who loves combining her enthusiasm for writing and wellness.

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