The sleep lab experience: What you need to know about sleep tests

Fears and questions about sleep apnea tests might be the #1 barrier to wellness for people who haven’t been diagnosed with the disorder. It’s natural to be wary of spending a night hooked to sensors, unsure of whether you’ll be comfortable enough to sleep. But we think the life-changing benefits of diagnosis and treatment are well worth it, so that’s why we’re answering your questions and hopefully alleviating any concerns and hesitations.

If you’re exhibiting symptoms of sleep apnea and suspect it’s more than a few nights of bad sleep, it might be time to work with a sleep specialist and start the path to better, deeper, more satisfying rest. Diagnosis leads to treatment, and treatment changes lives. A sleep study is often a crucial step in diagnosis, so let’s take the first step to better sleep!

Here are answers to some common questions:

Do I need a sleep test for diagnosis?

Short answer: you don’t always need a sleep test. You can start with an online sleep assessment to get more information. But your doctor may prescribe a sleep study at a clinic near you to get a clear picture of your sleep. Many sleep apnea symptoms don’t present all at once; instead, they appear throughout the night in things like your breathing, snoring, sleep cycles, and brain activity. To receive a proper diagnosis, it’s important that your sleep specialist and technicians get a full idea of what’s going on with your sleep throughout the night.

“I may prescribe a sleep study, and the sleep study tells me what to do next.”

Do I need to talk to my doctor to be referred to a sleep lab?

Yes, especially if you plan to pay through insurance, most of which require a prescription or authorization. It’s also important that you and your physician (or a board-certified sleep specialist) talk through your symptoms and discuss diagnosis options and potential therapies. This conversation will help you understand the “whats” and “whys,” and also ensure that you get the right treatment. This is also a good time to ask any initial questions you have, such as what they think your sleep issue is, why they recommend a certain diagnostic test and what alternatives are available. Don’t know something? Don’t be afraid to ask!

Talk to your specialist or physician about scheduling at a sleep clinic near you.

Can I do a sleep test at home? Are they accurate?

Sleep studies can be performed at home and are often offered based on insurance requirements and the assessment of a sleep specialist. At home you use a small device that tracks your breathing, oxygen levels and level of breathing effort. Overnight sleep studies attended by technicians can give more in-depth information, including more signals such as brainwaves, sleep stages and sequence, and airflow through the nose and mouth. This can lead to a clearer and more accurate diagnosis. Your physician will know if or when to prescribe a sleep study after talking with you about your symptoms.

Read more about at-home tests and the sleep test experience in our blog, Your sleep apnea test: What to expect.

At-home sleep study kits, like the ResMed ApneaLink™ Air, allow you to take your sleep test at home using sleep test equipment and sensors, which you’ll return to a sleep lab. If you do receive an ApneaLink Air, here’s a helpful video on how to use it.

Will it be hard to fall asleep? What if I can’t fall asleep?

This might be the most commonly asked question. It’s understandable! Spending a night away from home while your sleep is monitored can seem daunting, and you may think it will be impossible to fall asleep. While you may not get the best night’s sleep of your life, sleep center rooms are typically like simple hotel rooms. The beds are comfortable, and people often report that once they try to relax, they fall asleep much easier.

We asked the ResMed community for advice, and here’s what some people who’ve been through it said:

  • “Get up early, don’t take naps, go for a long walk or read a book before you go to your study. I did just fine and I never sleep well away from home.
  • Don’t stress. The beds are really comfortable. I typically never slept more than a couple hours at a time so was worried about this. It was not really an issue though. The technician was really understanding and helpful.”
  • “Relax, get your results and see what sleep therapy can do for you. Started using CPAP at the age of 24, I’m now 50 won’t go a night without it, makes a world of difference.

Don’t let your worries about potential results stress you out. Even if you don’t get much sleep, the tech will most likely be able to gather enough information for diagnosis.

Learn more about this in our blog, What if I can’t sleep during the sleep test?

*Everyone’s experience will differ, even if only slightly. These are just a few personal experiences.

“I’m like, ‘I’m never going to sleep if I have to use this … it’s not going to work’ … the next thing I noticed it was the morning. Ever since that moment I sleep through the night.”

What do I need to bring to a sleep study? How should I prepare?

Creature comforts can be an important piece of the sleep puzzle, so of course you should bring some along. Keep as close to your routine as possible. For instance, if you always have a snack before bed, bring one with you.

Here are some general guidelines to make the most of your time at the sleep clinic:

  • Ahead of time, go over any medications with your sleep physician
  • Bring an overnight bag with toiletries, books and magazines and pajamas (you can also wear them to the lab)
  • Other entertainment like phones and tablets are O.K., but note that blue light might affect your ability to fall asleep with ease
  • Stick closely to the behaviors that lead to your best sleep
  • Apply few to no products like hair spray, lotion and oils to help the sensors adhere
  • Limit caffeine day-of and avoid after 2 p.m.
  • Bring your favorite blanket and/or pillow

What to expect when you arrive:

  • You’ll arrive roughly two hours before your usual bedtime
  • A technician will greet you and show you around
  • The tech will explain the process and take you to your room
  • After some paperwork, you’ll get time to settle in and relax, read and so on
  • Around 30 minutes before bedtime, the sensors (electrodes) and monitoring device are applied
  • Then it’s time to relax, breathe and drift off to sleep
  • A technician will wake you in the morning, you can gather your things and prepare to depart, then discuss next steps

What will a sleep test tell me? What type of results will I see?

An in-lab test (aka polysomnogram) uses electrodes attached to your head and body while you sleep to monitor various behaviors. The sleep study is also recorded on video to document movements and actions.

Some examples of what the technicians are monitoring:

  • Eye and muscle movements
  • EEG brain activity
  • Mouth and nose airflow, respiratory effort and heart rate
  • Limb movements

These tell your sleep specialist things like:

  • How quickly you fall asleep
  • REM onset
  • Presence of abnormalities in breathing
  • Types of breathing abnormalities and their effects on the body and sleep
  • Presence of atypical movement, seizures and other unusual activity

With all the information your doctor learns through the sleep study, they can make a diagnosis and discuss treatment options. For people with obstructive sleep apnea, treatment usually means CPAP therapy, which you can learn more about in our blog, What is CPAP?

If you’re still having misgivings, don’t be afraid! If you do have sleep apnea, you’re part of a big community of people who’ve been there. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us on Twitter or Facebook and join the conversation!

This blog post contains general information about medical conditions and potential treatments. It is not medical advice. If you have any medical questions, please consult your doctor.

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