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What happens during a sleep study?

If you often snore or battle daytime tiredness, your doctor may schedule you for a sleep study. But that can sound scary, and you’re probably wondering what the study will actually be like.

The good news is, sleep studies are easier and more comfortable than ever before. You may even be able to do yours at home, in the comfort of your own bed.

“I think a lot of people come in with the idea that the in-lab sleep study will be us sticking them in something like a medieval dungeon,” says Matthew Schmitt, M.D., a Piedmont pulmonary and sleep medicine physician. In reality, many sleep center bedrooms resemble hotel rooms.

Even if you have trouble falling or staying asleep, technologists can usually gather enough data for a reliable diagnosis. One night of tracking – either at a sleep center or at home – is typically all that’s required.

Do you have a sleep disorder?

Many signs of poor sleep are easy to spot. If you’re snoring loudly, waking up with a gasp or feeling tired every day, you may have sleep apnea. People with this disorder repeatedly stop and start breathing during the night, Dr. Schmitt says. During obstructive sleep apnea, your throat muscles intermittently relax and block your airway during sleep.

Other symptoms can be more insidious. For example, patients complaining of memory problems may suffer from a sleep disorder, and mental health is linked with sleep as well.

“Several studies have shown an association between depression and sleep apnea,” Dr. Schmitt says, “and appropriate therapy may help reduce the symptoms of depression in adults with sleep apnea.”

Diagnosing apneas and other issues, including restless leg syndrome and REM sleep behavioral disorder, usually requires polysomnography. This is what most people think of when they envision a sleep study: overnight tracking to record brain activity, eye movement and other metrics.

Some sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy, are diagnosed with both nighttime and daytime studies.

What happens at the sleep center?

If you’re scheduled for polysomnography, you’ll arrive in the evening with your own pajamas and toiletries. The goal of the study is to capture the way you actually sleep, so doctors aim to replicate those conditions.

Once you’ve checked in with a technologist, they will show you to your room and connect you to various monitors. These may include:

  • EKG monitors
  • Elastic belts to measure breathing
  • Microphone to amplify snoring
  • Oxygen monitor
  • Wire electrodes to track brain activity
  • Wire electrodes to track movement                                                  

The technologist will move to another room to monitor your sleep, Dr. Schmitt says. You may be able to watch TV or scroll through your phone before sleep, just as you would at home.

“We like to see your normal routine,” Dr. Schmitt says.

Once you’re asleep, the technologist will monitor you throughout the night. You don’t need to get a full eight hours of sleep; generally two to three hours of sleep or more will provide enough data, Dr. Schmitt says.

The next morning, you’ll be able to shower, get dressed and go home or to work. The technologist will compile a report for your doctor, which they’ll use to create a treatment plan.

At-home studies

Many people worry about feeling claustrophobic at a sleep center. If your doctor approves an at-home study, you can stay in your own bed with minimal wiring attached. 

“The at-home technology has certainly advanced,” Dr. Schmitt says.

Your doctor will give you a tracking device that you’ll set up yourself, he says. Staff members at the clinic can demonstrate how to configure it. Once your study is over, you can mail the device back, and the doctor will review the results with you later.

Even if you’re nervous about sleep studies, don’t rely on your own smartphone or fitness watch for data. Although these devices can be helpful for recognizing the signs of a problem, Dr. Schmitt says, they tend to overestimate how much and how deeply you’re sleeping. Only a doctor can properly diagnose you.  

Getting better sleep every night

If you have sleep apnea, you may be prescribed a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. Like sleep studies themselves, Dr. Schmitt says, CPAP machines are less imposing than they may seem. To use it, you wear a mask connected to the machine, which keeps your airway open as you sleep.

“There are many, many new masks out on the market,” Dr. Schmitt says. “The materials have gotten softer and more comfortable.”

Even if you don’t have a disorder, good sleep hygiene is beneficial for everyone. Dr. Schmitt offers these tips for getting better rest:

  • Avoid your phone and TV in the evening. Certain wavelengths of light from these devices may suppress melatonin, which can make good sleep difficult to come by.
  • If you experience anxiety around bedtime, jot down tasks or worries in a journal to get them off your brain.
  • Meditate or practice deep-breathing exercises.
  • Stop drinking caffeine and alcohol at least 4 to 6 hours before bedtime.
  • Keep your bedroom cool and dark.

Your sleep may not magically improve overnight, but better habits put you on the road toward better rest.

“Good sleep doesn’t happen by chance,” Dr. Schmitt says. “You have to put effort into it.”

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