Sleep Studies: What’s Happening While You Snooze?

Sleep studies to diagnose sleep disorders

Sleep is vital. The amount of sleep we get is responsible for everything from re-energizing us for the new day to regulating our moods to even how much weight we gain. Unfortunately, far too many people do not get enough sleep. Often this is due to poor sleep hygiene. However, there are many who have tried everything to improve their sleep routine and still find it impossible to get a full night’s rest. In this case, a doctor will usually begin to suspect that a sleep disorder is the culprit. This is where sleep studies come into the picture. 

What is a sleep study?

The Sleep Foundation defines a sleep study as an exam that takes place over the course of a night. A patient will be scheduled to spend a night in a sleep lab, where an EEG will then monitor them as they sleep. Sensors will be placed on the head and body, after which the patient is made as comfortable as possible. The room is brought down to the optimal darkness for sleeping and the study begins.

The EEG will keep track of the cycles of REM and non-REM sleep the patient experiences throughout the session and record any patterns or problems that may pinpoint a disorder. In addition to REM tracking, the study will also monitor the patient’s breathing and heart rate, blood-oxygen levels, body movements and snoring. An entire night’s sleep is not necessary for a successful study. Once complete, the doctor will review the findings.

In the case of breathing issues, a cPAP machine may be used. This useful tool will send a constant stream of air through the air passage in order to keep it open while you sleep.

What can a sleep study diagnose?

Your doctor may recommend a sleep study if he or she suspects some form of sleep disorders. According to the Mayo Clinic, some of these include:

  • Unexplained chronic insomnia. This is where you have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep and there is no other discernible cause.
  • Sleep apnea. A condition where you periodically stop breathing while asleep, often causing you to gasp awake.
  • Narcolepsy. You may experience sudden attacks of sleep during the day, or uncontrollable sleepiness.
  • Periodic limb movement disorder. As the name implies, limbs will extend or jerk at certain intervals throughout the night, disturbing sleep.
  • Unusual behaviors during sleep. These may include sleep walking, sleep talking, or other activities while sleeping.

Sleep Science

Sleep studies are part of an ever growing field of sleep science. While much of sleep still remains a mystery, doctors and scientists are making strides every day. Sleep studies are an important part of that. If you or a loved one is struggling with insomnia or other sleep related issue, consider scheduling an appointment with a sleep specialist.

For more on how much sleep you should be getting per night, see our article on hours of sleep per night as we age. Visit the Sleep Foundation to learn more about what we know and what we’re still learning about sleep.