What Happens During A Sleep Study?

Have you been having difficulty sleeping for more than just a few nights? Do you feel your poor sleep is affecting your health, leaving you tired during the day and less alert when doing important tasks?

Perhaps you’re doing unusual things in your sleep, such as stopping breathing or gasping for breath, acting out your dreams in a dangerous way, or even struggling to sleep because of uncomfortable sensations in your legs. If so, a sleep study might help identify the cause.

Usually, if you’re struggling with your sleep, the first port of call should be your own doctor. They can test for physical conditions which are known to cause sleep problems. They may also be able to identify a sleep disorder and provide you with some initial treatment options.

However, not all sleep disorders can be diagnosed just by a visit to the doctor – a sleep study is needed to collect more information about your sleep patterns and behavior at night.

A sleep study is a useful way to determine if your interrupted sleep is caused by a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy. It might also help identify other sleep disorders which aren’t so easy to pinpoint during a routine visit to your doctor.

In this article I’ll be looking at what you can expect from a sleep study. You’ll find out what the environment is like, what happens during the study and what happens with the results.

What kind of room do you sleep in?

A sleep lab environment is usually set up like a hotel room, with a comfortable bed and bedding, and nice decorations. It’s intended not to be like a hospital environment.

The entire ambiance is designed to be relaxing and quiet in order to promote sleep. There will be a specialist sleep technician on hand, who can help you settle and set the temperature of the room to your liking so you’re as comfortable as possible.

Many people worry that they won’t be able to sleep in a strange bed, in a laboratory with someone watching or with all the equipment around them. The sleep specialists do understand this worry, so will try their best to ensure you’re comfortable and reassured. And in the end, most people do find they manage to get enough sleep for the study to yield useful results.

The polysomnogram sleep study

image of a man having a sleep study

The polysomnogram is the most common and accurate sleep study, and is non-invasive and pain free. During the study, you sleep overnight for one or two nights in the lab to be observed. There will be 2 dozen mildly adhesive sensors placed on your head and body, including your face, scalp, limbs, and chest.

Loose wires connect these sensors to a computer, which helps to monitor and record eye movements, brain activity, blood pressure, as well as the level of oxygen in your blood.

There will also be a heart rate monitoring clip on your earlobe or finger. Around your abdomen and chest will be elastic belts, which measure the movement of your chest as well as the force and length of inhalation and exhalation.

All of the equipment is designed to be as unobtrusive to your sleep as possible, so although it sounds like a lot, you’ll still be able to move in bed and find a comfortable position to sleep in. Once the equipment is all set up, all you have to do is hopefully fall asleep.

What happens while you sleep?

While you sleep, a nurse or a technician will be in another room, monitoring your sleep and brain patterns. They won’t disturb you unless absolutely necessary.

The next day, the sleep specialist will look at your test results. They might recommend a second night, possibly to try out a treatment option, such as medication.

And if you show signs of sleep apnea, they may decide to use a device known as a continuous positive airway pressure therapy (CPAP) mask in a split-night sleep study. For the first half of the night, your sleep pattern will be recorded without a mask. And in the second half, a CPAP mask will be fitted over your nose and mouth.

The CPAP helps to blow air through the mask and into your airways while you sleep, and can help with breathing-related sleep disorders such as sleep apnea. The technician will then monitor how well you’re sleeping with the CPAP machine compared to without it.

What other types of sleep studies are performed?

In addition to the most common polysomnogram, these other sleep studies are also commonly available and may or may not be performed, depending on your specific circumstances.

Multiple sleep latency test

The multiple sleep latency test is a daytime sleep study that’s typically done in addition to the polysomnogram. It’s used to diagnose specific sleep disorders such as hypersomnia, narcolepsy, and others that can cause serious daytime tiredness.

A while after waking up from the polysomnogram, you’ll have sensors placed on your head, including your face, scalp, and chin. You’ll then be asked to try to go to sleep again.

The test will record eye movement and brain activity in order to identify how long it takes you to fall asleep, and which stages of sleep you enter. This test will then be carried out four or five times throughout the day to show the difference in your ability to fall asleep during the daytime. In between each test, you’ll be asked to stay awake until the next one.

Maintenance of wakefulness test

A maintenance of wakefulness test is also usually carried out the day after a polysomnogram, and requires almost a full day. During the test, there will be sensors placed on your face, scalp and chin to monitor and record when you’re awake and when you’re sleeping.

For periods of 40 minutes, you’ll have to sit comfortably and quietly on a chair and look straight ahead, without falling asleep. If you do fall asleep, the technician will wake you up again quite quickly.

This test typically has 4 trials with breaks of a couple of hours in which you can relax in your room, reading, watching television or other gentle activities.

Home-based portable monitor test

Sometimes your doctor or a sleep specialist may recommend home testing. This could be to help diagnose sleep disorders like apnea or to check how well your treatment is working.

You’ll usually be shown how to set up the equipment and use the test when you collect it from the sleep center. It won’t have all the same monitoring facilities as a sleep lab, but it can measure your sleep in your natural environment and provide useful information about your diagnosis or progress.

Sometimes your doctor may also recommend you wear a sleep monitor on your wrist for several days. This can provide information about your sleep schedule and how much sleep you’re getting on average at home.

When can I expect results?

Once you complete a sleep study, your results won’t be available immediately. Your sleep specialist will need to review the information which was collected and analyze it.

It may take two weeks as they will need time to form a diagnosis based on your sleep history, medical history, and sleep study test results. A follow-up appointment will then be scheduled, in which your nurse, doctor, or sleep specialist will talk through the test results with you and work with you to come up with a treatment plan.

What treatment and follow-up can I expect?

The treatment provided will depend on the sleep disorder(s) that are identified. Treatment could include approaches such as a CPAP machine, medication, psychological support and sleep education or a dental device.

Depending on the sleep center, again your treatment plan and follow-up will vary. In some cases, the sleep specialist will decide on the most appropriate treatment, and also provide follow-up care in the clinic as necessary.

In other cases, your own doctor will be in charge of your care and follow-up. And in some cases, more regular monitoring and support will be available. You can ask who will provide treatment and follow-up when you arrive for your sleep study.

Have you had a sleep study?

Have you had a sleep study done before? What was the experience like? Feel free to leave a comment below and share your experience.

12 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I looking for a sleep study in my area . I have a disorder. That there isn’t very much research on how do I find a will funded study.

    • Hi LaTonya
      It depends where you live – different countries and regions have different facilities and processes for getting a sleep study done.

  • What a great resource! I think people experience anxiety going into a sleep study because there are so many unknowns. This is a great way to prepare yourself. Thanks for sharing!

  • One of my doctors suggested a sleep study with a NEUROLOGIST, not a pulmonary doctor, because I do *not* have sleep apnea. I think this is very logical and helpful and I will post here when I find a place and have the study. If anyone has had this with a neurologist, I’d love to hear about it, thanks.

    • Hi Caroline
      Thanks for your comment. It would be great to hear back from you when you’ve had the study done. I’m sure other readers would appreciate hearing someone inside information about how the process was.

  • Can a sleep study tell why you are having hypnogogic hallucinations, and if so is there treatment for it? I am due for a sleep study for this problem that I’ve had for 3 years and I know it’s psychological because it started after a death in the family. I don’t want to waste my time doing the study if nothing can be done about the problem. Thank you!
    S. Hood

    • Hi Sandra
      Thanks for your comment. A sleep study can be useful for identifying different sleep disorders, including those that might be associated with higher rates of hallucinations. So it could be useful to you to go. You’ll also have an opportunity to speak with a sleep specialist about what you’re experiencing. If you’re having serious sleep problems and your daily life is being affected by it, then I don’t think a sleep study would be a waste of time. You should learn some valuable information about your sleep and get help with it.
      In terms of treatment, hypnagogic hallucinations are very common, and often it’s a case of lifestyle changes and advice about sleep hygiene. But also, you may be advised to attend counseling or practice relaxation techniques to help clear your mind.

  • I had no idea that sleep studies were used to find out if you have a sleeping disorder. I had a friend that would randomly wake up and gasp for air. I will have to ask him if he has ever had one of these tests done on him, and what they found out.

    • Hi Gregory
      Thanks for your comment. Yes, if your friend wakes up gasping for air, he should definitely speak to his doctor about this and get himself checked out for sleep related breathing disorders like apnea.

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