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Do you need a sleep study? Here’s what to expect

June 27, 2019

Statistics show approximately 50 million people in the United States suffer from sleep-related disorders.  A sleep study, or polysomnography, is a non-invasive examination used to diagnose any number of sleep disorders and assist in determining treatment. Performed during the patient’s regular sleeping cycle, the test can help identify the causes of chronic insomnia, sleep apnea, periodic limb movement disorder, restless legs syndrome, nighttime behaviors like sleepwalking, REM sleep behavior disorder, and narcolepsy. 

When someone needs to be evaluated for a sleep study, their primary care physician will refer them to a sleep specialist, who will review medical history, talk about symptoms, and then screen for a variety of sleep disorders.

“We use sleep studies to help determine why people are having difficulty getting adequate sleep, getting to sleep, falling back asleep, or waking up after good duration of sleep and still feeling groggy or not rested,” explained Kevin Carter, DO, FAASM, medical director of the Sleep Center at Kettering Medical Center. “During the day, they might sit down and become sleepy or drowsy, or they find they are sleepy when trying to drive. Sometimes a bed partner reports they’re snoring or gasping during sleep.”

What happens during a sleep study

Sleep studies are performed two ways, at home or in a lab. Home sleep apnea tests are a limited evaluation that begins with a meeting with technicians during the day. The patient receives information, equipment and use instructions to do the test at home. Then, when it’s time to sleep, they put on the diagnostic equipment which records information about breathing and body position. The next day, they return to the sleep center, where data is downloaded from the equipment and analyzed by the doctor to determine the next steps in treatment.

For the in-lab testing, patients will be provided a dark, comfortable room. In addition to everything used for the home test, there are more wires to collect additional information. The test can be performed day or night, depending on the patient’s normal sleeping routine. A third-shift worker, for example, would be sleeping during the day, to provide a more realistic look at a patient’s normal sleep time. However, not everyone is comfortable with the idea of a sleep study.

“Many people have misconceptions about sleep studies,” Dr. Carter said. “Some are apprehensive about doing them, and some people don’t want to be watched while they are sleeping. Others feel anxious about the hospital room environment. But it’s not that way, at all.”

Dr. Carter explained the lab is set up like a bedroom at home, as comfortable and private as possible. A technician is on hand both to monitor the test and to see to the patient’s safety during the examination. After the exam, the data is scored by the technician, followed by a review of the study results, and then the doctor can put together a treatment plan.

Dispelling the myths

One of the big questions is how to know if you need a sleep study. Of course, a doctor would determine that in the long run, but the most common question to ask is: Do you snore? According to Dr. Carter, many patients will answer no.

“They often don’t believe they snore,” he explained. “If you snore or stop breathing while you’re sleeping, you should take that seriously and talk to your primary care doctor. It could be a symptom of a deeper issue, or it might lead you to one, like cardiovascular disease.”

Another misconception by patients is that only obese people have sleep apnea. “Something like 25% of people with severe sleep apnea have a normal body mass index,” said Dr. Carter.

Still others believe that, if you start using a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine for apnea treatment, you’ll become dependent upon it. “The CPAP doesn’t breathe for you—it helps maintain the airway,” said Dr. Carter. “It’s a prescribed treatment, like prescription eyewear, that works only while you wear it.” In fact, there are a number of treatment options for sleep apnea, including dental devices, various types of CPAP masks, and more.

In the end, the purpose of a sleep study, like any other medical test, is to identify a problem and determine the proper treatment as soon as possible. Like any other health concern, if a sleep disorder is addressed early, it becomes easier to help prevent the negative consequences. So, early identification is key. For more information or to request an appointment online, visit https://www.ketteringhealth.org/sleep/