Technology continues to advance in healthcare. Diagnosing obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which was once only done in a sleep lab, can currently be tested for with portable take-home machines. And technology is not stopping there. Sleep apnea apps will soon be able to wirelessly detect sleep apnea right from your own smartphone.

Obstructive sleep apnea is characterized by at least 5 episodes of apnea (pauses in breathing) per hour. It’s an extremely common condition, and it is believed that about 85 percent of people with significant obstructive sleep apnea have never been diagnosed.1

 If OSA goes undiagnosed and untreated, it can lead to more severe medical conditions such as an irregular heartbeat, heart attack, stroke, or high blood pressure, so diagnosis is extremely important.

The biggest signs of having sleep apnea are usually daytime sleepiness and loud snoring.

You may be aware that you snore, and probably because you were told that you do. And you may even know that you should have a sleep study to see if you have sleep apnea. Like many people, you may be hesitant because you know that going to a sleep lab requires a full night of being attached to cords and cables that monitor breathing patterns, body movement, heart rate, and oxygen saturation.

Fortunately, technology has made improvements and there is now equipment you can use at home. This is usually the first tool used for diagnosing sleep apnea. Although it’s more limited than testing in a sleep center, it does monitor the most important factors such as airflow, respirations, and oxygen saturation.

And technology is improving even more. smartphones are making their way into the world of medicine.

Smartphone sleep apps are already being used to track wellness and lifestyle data like step counts, activity, and food tracking. (2)

Smartphones are also offering an app that uses ambient light and noise to detect patterns of movement during sleep.  Another app uses a built-in microphone to detect respirations and movement in detecting sleep apnea.

An Australian company has developed an app the uses a wearable headband and Bluetooth technology to transfer data to a smartphone app. This device is now being used to monitor breathing during sleep to screen for OSA.

Smartwatches are also becoming widely available and maybe even more effective at being able to pick up signals from the body when worn during sleep. The light sensor on smartwatches can be used to detect heart rate and some algorithms are used for detecting pulse oximetry.

The future of Smartphone technology in diagnosing OSA

 Future development of smartphone technology will have external sensors allowing for more signals from the body to be recorded. One of these will be to add affordable oximetry probes.

Current oximetry can already be detected with an instant pulse oximetry reading with a heart rate. Detecting sleep apnea will need continuous oximetry over a period of eight hours, instead of just one reading.

In the future, this data will need to be transferred to a sleep center for scoring and diagnosing OSA. This can be done wirelessly through data transmission using cloud-based data storage and stored in a personal health database.

Challenges with Smartphone technology in diagnosing OSA

 One challenge that will need to be faced is battery life with continuous monitoring. Monitoring all night will require a longer battery life.

Apps that use ambient sound face a challenge when monitoring a patient that has a bed partner, since that partner may also snore. Too much ambient noise can possibly confuse the technology, making diagnosis more difficult. There is also the issue about which information should be entered under lifestyle and wellness, and which can be used as health-care information for a medical diagnosis.

For this, regulations will need to be put in place. Currently, these devices are used medically by physicians and medical providers. But since smartphones and devices are now more commonly used and making their way into consumers’ hands, regulations will need to be provided for these to be used to collect medical data. It’s important to determine the accuracy of information to be used as healthcare-related data. (3)

Benefits of using Smartphones to diagnose OSA

Sleep disorders like OSA are common and the number of cases is growing. Not every case of sleep disorders requires immediate attention by a medical provider. Having the technology available to monitor for these problems at home can help physicians determine which cases need immediate attention and which cases could be addressed with the right information and treatments or behavioral changes that can be done at home.

This can be highly beneficial for patients that require screening for OSA that have limited access to a sleep center or can’t get their hands on a portable take-home device. It could also benefit a large number of patients that need screening before undergoing surgery.

Not only could smartphones be used to diagnose OSA, but they could also be used to determine a patient’s compliance with therapy, and possibly alter treatment when necessary.

Another benefit of this technology is the comfort it offers. Using a smartphone for monitoring or diagnosing OSA frees the user from cables and wires that would otherwise be attached to the body. This reduces the number of connection problems, resulting in a reduction of failures of the device. Using an app with Bluetooth can send the data wirelessly right to a smartphone (or a tablet). This will be able to be used with continuous monitoring.

Fortunately, since technology has already come a long way, there are snore apps that can already be used if you’re unsure if you snore or want to know the severity of your snoring.

But these snore apps are not a replacement for a sleep study or a diagnosis from your physician.

If you think you may have sleep apnea, don’t let it go untreated. Contact your medical provider to get a proper diagnosis and treatment.