By studying sleep and its characteristics, scientists can better understand the process and discover how sleep affects our overall wellness. Sleep can be observed and measured in sleep labs. Using set parameters, researchers can use sleep tests to measure physiological functions as you sleep or try to sleep. This, in turn, can help diagnose and manage sleep disorders.
Sleep labs are usually located in hospitals or medical sleep centers, but you can sometimes participate in a sleep study at home. The data collected from these labs can identify your sleep stages of REM and NREM sleep during the night.
Sleep studies use a variety of noninvasive technologies to gather data about your sleep. The data collected and studied usually includes:
Sleep studies can help identify sleep disorders and underlying conditions that contribute to sleep deprivation. If you’re experiencing sleep deprivation, daytime sleepiness, cognitive difficulties or emotional distress, a sleep study might help diagnose an underlying issue. Sleep labs often test for disorders such as:
Sleep labs can also be useful for patients who experience both nighttime breathing disorders and an associated health issue, such as congestive heart failure or diabetes.
Not all sleep labs provide the same tests. Based on your individual symptoms, your doctor will determine the appropriate tests for you, which may include:
Most sleep lab tests are performed at a sleep center. On the day of your assessment, you’ll be asked to arrive approximately two hours before bedtime. You’ll likely be provided with a comfortable, hotel-like bedroom. The doctor or technician will place electrodes and monitors on your body that will stay there as you sleep. Sometimes this equipment may irritate your skin, but any irritation should go away shortly after it’s removed.
During the night, the equipment will record your physiological functions. It measures how long it takes for you to fall asleep and enter REM sleep, any changes in your breathing or heart rate, if and when you stop breathing and any other movements. Your sleep will likely be recorded by a video camera.
On the day of your sleep study, you can follow your normal routine. If you’re a night shift worker, you can request to take a sleep test during the day, so it fits your sleep schedule. Your doctor will likely request that you avoid any sleep medicine, alcohol or caffeine, as these substances can interfere with your sleep. If you have any medications in your normal routine, your doctor will review them to factor in how they might affect your sleep. Antidepressants, benzodiazepines and opioids can all influence your sleep.
Once your sleep test is complete, your doctor will review the results to determine a diagnosis and treatment plan. They'll consider your breathing, brain waves and muscle movements in the context of your medical history and other symptoms. For those suspected of having sleep apnea, the doctor will review how often you stopped breathing compared to the Apnea-Hypopnea Index.
Sleep labs can be expensive, but you may be able to cover the cost through your health care insurance. Most insurance policies require that your doctor provide a referral to a sleep lab and supply adequate medical evidence that indicates the necessity of diagnostic testing. Always check first because insurance policies may not cover diagnostic sleep labs for:
Much of the equipment used for sleep tests can't be properly disinfected, and nocturnal ventilator support may increase the risk of COVID infection as it can potentially spread droplets. As such, sleep labs are recommended to perform only necessary sleep tests for those who are acutely ill.
To continue operating, sleep labs are suggested to follow these recommendations:
Have you been through a sleep study test at a sleep center or at home? If so, what worked (or didn’t work) for you? Comment below!
© 2021 American Sleep Association.