If you are noticing you have symptoms of sleep apnea, the first thing you should do is follow up with a doctor to get proper testing to get a diagnosis or rule it out. But what kind of doctor should you see?
There are plenty types of doctors that diagnose and treat sleep apnea. These can be primary care physicians or specialists like sleep medicine, pulmonologists, ENTs, psychiatrists, neurologists, surgeons, or even dentists.
We will go through each of these below in more detail.
Which Physicians can treat sleep apnea?
1. Primary Care Doctors
Primary care doctors (or general practitioner) are usually a good home base to start with if you have symptoms but no diagnosis yet. Primary care doctors could be a family medicine, an internal medicine, pediatrician (for children), or a geriatric (for seniors).
This is usually a good place to start. Just because you are low on energy doesn’t mean you have sleep apnea. They can order blood work or other tests to rule anything else out. If needed, they can order a sleep study to be done that can give an official diagnosis of sleep apnea.
And depending on your primary care doctor and what they are comfortable with, they can write a prescription for CPAP for you. In some cases, they may want to referral you to a specialist. Don’t over look your primary care doctor just because they aren’t a specialist. This should be your go-to person to start with when you have a health concern.
And if you do need to see a specialists for sleep apnea, they will be able to point you in the right direction on which specialist to see. Because there is more than one type of specialist that treats sleep apnea. Primary care doctors are always a good place to start with any medical concern that is not an emergency.
2. Sleep Medicine Specialists
Sleep medicine doctors might seem a bit obvious here. But even the obvious ones should be included. Sleep Medicine physicians have undergone special training and testing to enable them to diagnose all sleep related disorders, which includes sleep apnea.
Typically, sleep specialists are dual board certified with another related specialty. The other related specialty would be, but not limited to, ENT, Pulmonology, or Neurology. A lot of the times, Sleep Medicine is considered a subspecialty.
Sleep Medicine is a fairly new specialty in medicine. It wasn’t until 2007 the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) began administration of the subspecialty certification examination for sleep medicine.
3. Ear, Nose and Throat Doctors (Otolaryngologists)
Most people call these ENT doctor. These doctors specialize in diseases involving the structures inside your head, throat, and face. That is self explanatory by their name. They specifically would treat obstructive sleep apnea. If the cause of your sleep apnea is a narrow passage way, over sized tonsils or tongue, then this is a specialists that can go over treatment options for you.
They most likely will still recommend you try CPAP first since it is typically the most successful. But they can recommend surgeries to make an air way bigger, removing tonsils, or other possibilities.
Not all ENT physicians treat sleep apnea. So it is good to do some research and make sure the ENT doctor you pick specializes with sleep apnea. If possible, it would be nice to get one that is board certified in both ENT and Sleep Medicine. That may be hard to find depending on where you live.
Pulmonologists are sometimes known as the ‘lung doctor” or “lung specialist.” They treat things like asthma, COPD, and of course, sleep apnea. The type of sleep apnea they treat is once again, obstructive sleep apnea. It is such a common thing for pulmonologists to treat sleep apnea, that they often have the word “Sleep” in the name of their practice.
Not all pulmonogists specialize in sleep disorders, so it is good to do some research on them before making an appointment. It would also be good if possible to find one that is board certified in both pulmonology and sleep medicine. Like with ENTs, that may be tricky to find close to you depending on where you live.
This may be one of the better specialists that can monitor your CPAP and give advice on any changes that need to be made or to let you know if it just isn’t working out.
Neurologists are sometimes know has a “brain doctor’ or brain specialist.” A Neurologist may not jump out at you as someone that would treat a sleep disorder, but in the case of sleep apnea, they can play a very specific role. They are one of the few specialists that treat what is known as Central Sleep Apnea.
Central Sleep Apnea is cause by the brain functioning a certain way. This can be more difficult to treat than obstructive sleep apnea. And since it is caused by the brain, it makes sense that a brain specialist would be the ideal physician. Although treatment may still include CPAP (or most likely BIPAP or ASV in this case), a neurologist will still be the best option for Central Sleep Apnea treatment and diagnosis.
And like I mentioned with the other specialists, not all neurologists specialize in sleep disorders. Before making an appointment, it is best to do some research and if possible, get a physician that is board certified in both sleep medicine and neurology.
Central Sleep Apnea can be a tricky thing to treat. If you are fine neurologically, then it may be a psychological issue or psychiatric. Depression, anxiety, bipolar, and other mental health concerns can contribute to central sleep apnea.
This isn’t a common course to take, but when other treatments of central sleep apnea fail, this is a possible referral your doctor may make. And like I said with other specialists, try to find one that specializes in sleep disorders.
If they have a background in CBT-I (cognitive behavioral therapy- insomnia) would be really nice for them to have. Behavior health sleep medicine is often an overlooked problem.
When you don’t respond to the treatments being offered for sleep apnea, surgery is usually considered the last resort. It is the last resort, especially with children who can a lot of times grow out of the condition. But if your sleep apnea doesn’t improve with other treatments like weight loss, CPAPs, or dental therapy, surgery is an option. The type of surgery you have will depend on the cause of your apnea.
In some cases, a surgeon can perform a simple procedure to shrink or stiffen the tissue in your mouth or throat that’s blocking your airways.
Other times, more extensive surgery to cut away your tonsils or other extra tissue is required. For these procedures, you’ll usually receive general anesthesia, spend some time in the hospital, and have throat pain for a week or two afterward.
You will want to consider all other options first since surgery can have one of the lower success rates compared to something like PAP therapy. Carefully go over everything with your doctor and have them explain all the pluses and negatives before you decide to give up on the other treatment options
This may or may not be a surprise to you, but yes, dentists can treat sleep apnea. Specifically, they treat obstructive sleep apnea. Unlike the other doctors in the list, these are not MDs, but still go through a lot of schooling and are considered doctors.
Dentists may be know for cleaning teeth and filling in cavities, but some doctors have training in sleep apnea. The treatments they offer would include fitting you for a dental mouth device that can hold your jaw in place making it easier to breath.
One thing to consider is that you may need to be ready to take an additional sleep test after you get your oral device. With a CPAP, it records everything and doctors can see the data on their computer so it is easy for them to see if it is working or not. But with the oral appliance, there is no computer reading how well it is working or not. So the only way to know for sure if it is working would be to have another sleep study after you get the oral device.
Which doctors can write an order for a sleep test?
Any of the doctors above (except dentists) can write an order for a sleep study
Which doctors can write a prescription for a CPAP?
Again, any of the doctors above (except dentists) can write a prescription for CPAP, including primary care doctors.
Which doctor should I choose to go see if I think I might have sleep apnea?
When in doubt, start with your primary care doctor. It will usually be easier to make an appointment with them, the cost is usually cheaper, and they know your medical history better. They should at least be able to order a test for you that would be able to give a you a diagnosis at least.
If they feel that you need to see a specialist, they can always refer you to one. But they would be a great starting point rather than just picking a random specialist. Especially if you aren’t sure if you have central or obstructive sleep apnea, or neither.
There are many physician specialties that treat sleep apnea, it can be overwhelming. The easiest thing to do is start with your primary care doctor and go from there. If you need a specialist, they can point you to the right one for you. Make sure your specialists does treat sleep apnea, and if possible, get a specialist that is board certified in both their main specialty and sleep medicine.
If you live in a small or rural town, it may be harder to find a specialist and you may have to drive to a larger city. But hopefully this wont be a a visit you will have to make often. Usually once treatment is working you don’t need to follow up again unless you want to or your insurance requires it.
Make sure you go over all the causes and treatments with your doctor to know what to expect and what their typical success rates are.