By Charles Kravitz, DDS in Women’s Health
Swedish scientist Dr. Karl Franklin and his team set out to find out how prevalent sleep apnea is among women and how often symptoms occur. Out of a population-based random sample of 10,000 women between the ages of 20 and 70 years, they gathered data on 400 of them. The test group were given questionnaires which included several questions regarding their sleeping habits and sleep quality. They also underwent overnight polysomnography.

WOMEN ARE LESS LIKELY TO BE DIAGNOSED FOR SLEEP APNEA

Women with sleep apnea are less likely to be diagnosed compared to men. In studies of patients registering for evaluation for sleep apnea, the ratio of men to women has sometimes been extremely lopsided, with 8 or 9 men diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) for each woman found to have OSA. However, we know from studies in the general population that the actual ratio is likely to be closer to 2 or 3 men with OSA for each woman who has the condition.  Women make up about 45 percent of sleep study referrals and most sleep studies are still done to screen for sleep apnea.

WHY ARE WOMEN LESS LIKELY TO BE DIAGNOSED FOR SLEEP APNEA?

 First, there is an unfortunate predefined notion of the make-up of a sleep apnea patient. The stereotype is a middle-age, overweight or obese male. Physicians may not be thinking of this OSA diagnosis when the patient is female. Second, women may present with slightly different symptoms than the “classic” symptoms of snoring, witnessed breathing pauses at night and excessive sleepiness during the day.

Instead, women may present with fatigue, insomnia, disrupted sleep, chronic fatigue and depression morning headaches, mood disturbances or other symptoms that may suggest reasons other than OSA for their symptoms. Because these symptoms are not specific for OSA, women may be misdiagnosed and are less likely to be referred to a sleep study for further evaluation. Another problem is that women with sleep apnea have more subtle breathing disturbances and are more likely to have REM-related apneas, so they may be tougher to diagnose.

WOMAN SNORING 5-25-15

COMMON SLEEP APNEA MISDIAGNOSES

Women are often diagnosed in error with one of the following conditions, rather than sleep apnea.

  • Anemia
  • Cardiac or pulmonary illnesses
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Fatigue from overwork
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Hypertension
  • Hypochondria
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Insomnia
  • Menopausal changes
  • Obesity
  • Sources
  • Dr. Karl Franklin, European Respiratory Journal
  • Grace W. Pien MD, MS, assistant professor of medicine, divisions of Sleep Medicine and Pulmonary and Critical Care at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
  • Nancy A. Collop , MD, medical director at Johns Hopkins Hospital Sleep Disorders Center and associate professor of medicine at Hopkins’ Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine in Baltimore, Md .
  • Fiona C. Baker, PhD, sleep physiologist, Center for Health Sciences, SRI International, in Menlo Park, Calif.
  • Anita L. Blosser, MD, with Duke Primary Care at the Henderson Family Medicine Clinic in Henderson, N.C.

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