Part of the “Make Sleep a Priority” Series (July 12, 2018) — If you or your doctor suspect you might have a sleep disorder, what happens next? Usually, you will go through an overnight sleep study.
A sleep study is a non-invasive overnight exam that lets doctors see what is happening in your brain and body while you sleep. For something that seems easy to do when everything goes well, sleep is surprisingly complex, especially when there is a problem with it.
Sleep is controlled by different parts of the brain during different stages of sleep, and various parts of the body behave differently during sleep. A doctor needs a variety of brain and body test results to make an accurate diagnosis.
The overall sleep study is called a “polysomnogram,” and it measures a variety of brain activities and body systems and the relationships between them. You might also hear it called a “laboratory sleep study,” although the testing takes place in a hospital or sleep center in room that is a lot like a hotel room or bedroom.
You will receive instructions before the study asking you to avoid caffeine and alcohol. You should pack an overnight bag with whatever medications you will need and the clothes you will need the next day. You might be instructed to stop taking prescriptions over-the-counter medications that could interfere with sleep. You will be asked to wash your hair with shampoo only, dry it, and avoid any other hair products. This is because you will have electrodes applied to the skin of your head and other places on your body.
These electrodes and other devices monitor your brain waves, the stages and cycles of sleep that you go through, muscle movements, eye movements, breathing, snoring, heart rate, levels of oxygen in your blood and leg movements. None of them are painful, but they might feel a little odd until you get used to them. You will be able to move around in the bed because the wires connected to your electrodes are gathered together in a bundle behind your head. A sleep technologist will be monitoring you in a room nearby and can disconnect the wire bundle if you need to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Your sleep study will gather a huge amount of data —typically about 1,000 pages — that takes about two weeks to review and interpret. A sleep technologist processes the raw data, and a physician who is a sleep specialist interprets the scored data to arrive at a diagnosis and a treatment plan if evidence of a sleep disorder is found.
Treatment might include prescription drugs, behavioral changes, or sleeping with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. CPAP, a device that pushes air into your throat to open your airways, is a common treatment for sleep apnea, but it is not used for all sleep disorders.
This article is part of “Make Sleep a Priority,” Dr. Anuj Chandra’s education program to encourage healthy sleep. For other articles, visit SleepForHealth.org. Or follow the Advanced Center for Sleep Disorders on Facebook or Twitter (@AdvancedSleep).