Healthy Living

Tracking Sleep Apnea with a Portable Pulse Oximeter

Using a pulse oximeter can help patients effectively track their sleep apnea and CPAP usage.

Tracking Sleep Apnea with a Portable Pulse Oximeter

Portable pulse oximeters are typically used to monitor how much oxygen is moving through the bloodstream.  Basically, it’s the most effective and least invasive way to make sure that a patient has the right amount of oxygen and CO2 in their body.

Most people don’t have one of those little monitors in their home but, for those who have been diagnosed with sleep apnea, particularly severe obstructive sleep apnea, it might be a handy tool to have on your bedside table. Using a pulse oximeter to measure oxygen saturation while sleeping is a great way to make sure that your treatment for sleep apnea is working.

A person should have oxygen saturation of at least 92% when awake and active.  While sleeping, that number rises to 98% saturation. Anything below those numbers could be an indication of a serious problem.

What exactly is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a disorder where the airways become blocked when a person sleeps.  There are two forms of sleep apnea, obstructive and central.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is when the airway blocked by the soft tissue in the back of the throat collapsing. It’s recognized by a few symptoms, the most common being snoring and choking in sleep.

Central sleep apnea is also due to the airway being blocked, however, it’s because the brain isn’t signaling to the muscles in the airways to do the work that is required to breathe.

By the far the most common form of sleep apnea is OSA. It can be caused by a number of factors, including drug or alcohol-use, obesity, and family history. 

There is no cure for OSA, but there are a few treatment options out there. By far, the most effective is the use of a CPAP machine. The CPAP (which stands for continuous positive airway pressure) is a machine that blows a continuous stream of moist air into a person’s airway to keep things open and moving. This is typically done through a mask that covers the nose or the nose and mouth.

Without treatment, sleep apnea can cause a number of issues including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Frequent episodes of low oxygenation
  • Heart problems
  • Headaches
  • Cognitive delays
  • Daytime sleepiness

Over time, sleep deprivation and lack of oxygen can lead to more serious and deadly complications, including heart attacks.

Thankfully, for those who suffer from OSA (and their bed partners), the CPAP machine provides almost immediate relief.  From one night to another, someone with OSA might go from a restless sleep to a full 8 hours of slumber without any interruptions. 

So where do the portable pulse oximeters come in?

Wondering if your sleep apnea is under control and if you have healthy oxygen levels? You may benefit from a monitor. A monitor will help see if your CPAP is working the way you want it to work. Maybe you are starting to feel tired during the daytime, or you are waking up multiple times at night. Instead of having an expensive sleep study at a clinic, a monitor will help uncover how effective your treatment is.

How does it work?

Well, it’s pretty simple.  However, a few things to note: if someone suspects that they have sleep apnea and have not been diagnosed, their best bet is to see their doctor. Using a portable pulse oximeter is not useful for diagnosing a problem that requires a proper sleep test. Rather, this tool is a good way to monitor how things are going and keep track of oxygen levels. 

Using the monitor is simple. Every night, attach the monitor by clamping it over the tip of a finger. To see if it's accurate, make sure that your nail is free from nail polish and that the monitor fits. Depending on the monitor, either an alarm will ring when and if your saturation drops below a certain level or it will send the data to a device, such as an app. 

In the morning, simply review the data and see how many times your saturation drops. One or two episodes that last seconds may not be significant, but if there are many or the episodes last longer, then there is an issue.

How does someone get a monitor?

Some people may be tempted to purchase an expensive sleep apnea pulse oximeter, however, a much cheaper portable pulse oximeter works, too. Some doctors may prescribe a monitor if the patient's sleep apnea is severe or difficult to manage. Even with prescriptions though, not all insurance companies will cover the use of a monitor. This is when it’s time to go shopping and see what all the different models of monitors can offer.

Price points will vary depending on what the patient is looking for. A monitor with an alarm may run an extra $30.00 and wireless models can cost even more, however, the convenience of not having to deal with be worth it. A few other things to consider is the size, the battery life and how data is stored. The good thing is that they are easy to find at any medical supply store or online. Research exactly what’s out there out there and find the type of monitor that works best for you.

A few things to remember

  • Using a portable pulse oximeter will not help diagnose sleep apnea or other breathing disorders. However, if used properly after a diagnosis and with treatment, it can help control sleep apnea. 
  • Wear the monitor regularly for a while. This will help figure out a baseline and to identify when something isn’t going well
  • Research, figure out what kind of monitor works best for different situations
  • Don’t forget to share any findings with primary care physicians, especially if the data from the monitor needs to be addressed