Adults need seven to eight hours of quality sleep each night. When that is cut short, people miss out on crucial sleep stages that help the brain and body function optimally. Chronic lack of sleep can lead to long-term physical and mental health issues.
If you’re one of the 70 million Americans with sleep problems, you may benefit from a sleep study.
What is a sleep study?
In many cases, you will first be asked to keep a home diary of your sleep/wake patterns. A diary, along with a history and medical exam, may be enough information for a sleep specialist to accurately diagnose what is causing your sleep problems. When they need more information, they rely on a sleep study.
Home sleep studies
A home sleep study is often a first option. We use a small portable device to help diagnose sleep apnea, which occurs when breathing starts and stops during sleep. For up to three nights, patients use sensors that measure:
- Airflow and breathing patterns
- Blood oxygen levels
- Heart rate
Once the study period is completed, the information on the device is downloaded and interpreted by a sleep specialist.
Standard sleep study
The alternative to a home sleep study is a standard sleep study (polysomnogram), which occurs in a laboratory overnight. A sleep specialist will connect painless sensors to parts of your body to monitor your sleep. Throughout the night the doctor evaluates:
- Blood oxygen levels
- Electrical activity of the brain
- Eye and muscle movements
- Heart rate
- Rates of air flow through your nose and mouth
- What sleep stages you experience
If you have excessive sleepiness during the day, your sleep specialist may request a multiple sleep latency test (MSLT). This test measures how quickly you can fall asleep during the day, measured over five distinct nap periods.
What sleep disorders can a sleep study find?
Sleep studies can diagnose these common sleep disorders:
- Sleep apnea: You repeatedly stop breathing during sleep
- Hypersomnia: Conditions like narcolepsy create an overwhelming need for sleep
- Parasomnias: Abnormal movements, behaviors or dreams occur during sleep
Your sleep specialist can likely diagnose other sleep disorders without a formal sleep study. These include:
- Insomnia: Difficulty falling or staying asleep even when there are no interruptions
- Restless leg syndrome: An uncontrollable urge to move your legs that makes it difficult to get quality sleep
- Circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders: Patients don’t follow normal sleep times
How sleep studies can improve sleep
An accurate diagnosis from a sleep study can ensure you receive the appropriate therapy to help you sleep. Sleep treatments include:
- Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), where a mask provides a gentle flow of air to keep your airways open while you sleep
- Melatonin, which is a naturally occurring hormone that can help align sleep to more normal patterns
- Sleep medicines, which can help break the cycle of insomnia and let you get high-quality sleep
- Light therapy, which helps reset circadian rhythms to indicate to the body that it is time to be awake
- Cognitive behavioral therapy, which addresses the cause of your insomnia or sleep disorder and uses various approaches to retrain the brain to accommodate sleep over the long term
The importance of overcoming sleep problems
You should speak to your doctor and request a referral to a sleep specialist if you aren’t getting seven hours of sleep most nights, or if you feel tired despite getting enough sleep. Sleep is essential to good health and longevity. Lack of sleep results in:
- Decreased mental performance
- Impaired mood
- Increased risks of high blood pressure and heart disease
- Inability to repair cells or fight infection