Doctors can diagnose some conditions just by looking at you or running a simple test or two. But your doctor isn’t in your bedroom at night, which can make sleep problems harder to diagnose and fix.
“A sleep study is similar to sticking a needle in the vein to get a cholesterol test,” says Dr. Howard Steiner, director of the Sleep Center at Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore, Md. “You don’t know unless you look.”
Your doctor may suggest a sleep study if you report that you’re extremely sleepy during the daytime, and you snore—or if you snore and also have high blood pressure or a heart rhythm problem. All of these can be red flags for sleep apnea, which affects as many as 18 million Americans, according to the American Association for Respiratory Care. Not only does sleep apnea prevent you from getting good sleep, but it is also linked to cardiovascular problems that over time can become life-threatening.
If your doctor suggests you undergo a sleep study, don’t hesitate. For starters, it’s more pleasant than a typical overnight hospital stay.
“Usually sleep centers feature rooms that are more like hotel rooms than hospital rooms—much more comfort designed,” says Dr. Steiner. “Accredited sleep labs have to meet certain standards in terms of room temperature and size.”
When you arrive at the sleep lab, usually at night, you’ll meet the professional who’ll be monitoring your sleep, and have the procedure explained to you in detail. Most likely, you’ll have several monitors attached to your body, usually on the head, chest and legs. These will detect your heart rate, oxygen intake, brain activity and eye movement, among other things. A camera in the room may also provide a visual record of your sleep, which is especially helpful if you are prone to sleep walking, seizures, or other abnormal behaviors during sleep.
Many sleep labs have televisions, but you also may be permitted to bring a book or hobby, like knitting, that’s part of your typical nighttime routine.
“The person goes to sleep when they are sleepy and wakes up on their own,” Dr. Steiner says.
You’ll be monitored by the sleep professional throughout the night. In most cases, the information gathered during the sleep study is sent back to the physician who ordered it, who then decides on a course of treatment. But sometimes, if the subject’s sleep during the study is exceptionally bad, Dr. Steiner says, the technician may immediately try to administer a therapy, such as a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which pushes air down your throat to keep the passageway open. On other occasions, the subject may be asked to spend a second night in order to gather more information or try another treatment.
If your doctor thinks you may benefit from a CPAP, a common treatment for sleep apnea, you may also return to the sleep lab for another overnight stay, so that you can be fitted for the device, and it can be determined how much air pressure is needed. For a mild case, you may be issued a “smart” CPAP, which can make that determination on its own, while you are sleeping.
Undergoing a sleep study may seem like a hassle, but in the end it’s a sacrifice you should be willing to make for the sake of your sleep.
“Once things are properly adjusted, most patients have immediate relief,” says Dr. Steiner.
To find an accredited sleep center near you, visit www.sleepcenters.org.