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Do I need a sleep study?

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  • Home Sleep Testing
  • In-lab Sleep Study

American Academy of Sleep Medicine  |  Oct 29, 2012
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About 70 million Americans suffer from sleep problems. If you suspect you may have a sleep disorder, a sleep study at an AASM-accredited sleep center is the best way to find out. Below are answers to some of the most common questions about sleep studies.

Q: How can I determine if I need a sleep study?

A: Your board-certified sleep medicine physician will decide if you need a sleep study. The first step in determining whether you have a sleep disorder might not necessarily be a sleep study, says Dr. Helene Emsellem, Medical Director for the Center for Sleep & Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, Md. The sleep physician will first attempt to determine the nature of a sleep problem and its treatment. This includes a sleep diary to track your sleep-wake pattern, your complete medical history and a physical examination. If the sleep physician thinks you may have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a hypersomnia such as narcolepsy or a parasomnia such as sleep walking or nocturnal eating, then he or she will recommend a sleep study. In many cases, the physician will recommend a home sleep apnea test if he or she suspects you have sleep apnea. Other sleep disorders such as insomnia and restless legs syndrome (RLS) do not require a sleep study to diagnose, but rather history.

Q: What will a sleep study tell me?

A: A standard in-lab sleep study (polysomnogram) records information that allows the sleep physician to evaluate the sleep stages and their sequence during the night. The in-lab sleep study records EEG activity, eye movements and muscle tone. The EEG data tells us how quickly an individual falls asleep and the presence of early onset Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep may suggest sleepiness and a possible disorder of alertness, says Emsellem. Airflow through the nose and mouth is recorded to figure out if there are abnormalities to help us determine if sleep apnea is present. The simultaneous recording of heart rate, oxygen saturation, airflow flow and respiratory effort allows us to analyze the types of breathing abnormalities present and their impact on oxygenation, cardiac function and sleep continuity. Limb movements are recorded to detect extraneous movements, possible seizure activity and periodic limb movements of sleep. The in-lab sleep study is recorded on video so that sleep talking and unusual behaviors may be documented. Home sleep apnea tests collect data that the physician requires to diagnose sleep apnea - usually your breathing and blood oxygen level.

Q: What treatments are available for sleep disorders?

A: Treatments vary depending on the diagnosis. Some of the most common types of sleep disorders include insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, restless legs syndrome, parasomnias and snoring.

Q: What other tools do physicians use to determine if I have a sleeping disorder?

A: There are a variety of tools used,  including a sleep diary to track the sleep-wake schedule, the Epworth Sleepiness Scale and Stanford Sleepiness Scale, to assess the subjective degree of sleepiness present, the STOP-Bang sleep apnea screening questionnaire and a comprehensive sleep history.

Q: What can I expect if I see a board-certified sleep medicine physician about a sleep problem?

A: Your doctor will take a careful sleep history, review all medical and psychiatric problems, as well as give you a physical examination, says Emsellem. You may be asked to keep a sleep diary and you should come prepared to share any current and past medications. Your sleep physician will meet with you and determine whether or not an in-lab sleep study, a sleep study with a multiple sleep latency test (MSLT) the following day or a home sleep apnea test is required.

Q: How should I prepare for an in-lab sleep study?

A: There are a number of things you can do to prepare for the sleep study including:

  • Arrive with clean hair – no hair sprays, oils, gels, etc.
  • Pack an overnight bag, as you would for a stay at a hotel. You may bring books or an MP3 player.
  • You can bring a snack if you are used to having one before bedtime.
  • Limit caffeine to one cup on the day of the study and avoid caffeine after 2 p.m.
  • Avoid alcohol on the day of the study.
  • Review any medications with your sleep physician ahead of time.
  • If you have a favorite pillow you can bring it with you.

Q: What will happen when I arrive at the sleep center?

A: When you arrive at the sleep center a tech will greet you, show you the facilities, explain the procedures and escort you to your room, says Emsellem. There will be paperwork for you to complete and insurance copays will be collected. Patients are generally given plenty of time to wind down and relax. Electrodes and the monitoring device are generally affixed about 30 minutes prior to bedtime. 

Q: What should I expect during the sleep study?

A: Sleep in the center is never quite like at home, says Emsellem.  It may take longer to fall asleep and many patients report feeling as if they did not sleep as “soundly” as they do at home, often due to awareness of the monitoring device.  This usually does not interfere with getting accurate information from your sleep study. You should sleep in the body position that you are comfortable in and let the tech know if anything is uncomfortable as there is often some flexibility in the positioning of the monitors.

Q: What are some questions that I should ask my doctor?

A: It is fair to ask your sleep physician what he or she thinks is the sleep problem, what is required for the diagnosis and why and what alternatives are available, says Emsellem.  There are no “bad” questions.  It is important for you to understand what is recommended and why.

Find an AASM-accredited sleep center near you.


  1. 1 Lyla Peterson 04 Nov
    It's good to know that a sleep study can help to diagnose issues like sleepwalking and sleep apnea. I have been having some issues with waking up frequently throughout the night for the past year or so. It may be a good idea for me to talk to a doctor about a possible sleep study to figure out what's going on.
  2. 2 Carol C 12 Dec
    I had a sleep study even though I believe my insomnia is being caused by new medication.  It was a bad experience due to the equipment and horrible bed.  The tech spent several hours talking loudly in the hall even though I told her that I am a light sleeper.  I slept just over two hours and do not believe their data is reliable given that I did not sleep anywhere close to my normal pattern.  I will never have another sleep study. 
  3. 3 Sissy 17 Sep
    My doctor wants me to do a sleep study but insurance doesn't cover it, they want $938.00 to watch me sleep???
  4. 4 Lou 27 Sep
    My 85 year old mother had a two night in lab sleep study in 2010.  She was diagnosed with OSA and has been using a CPAP successfully since then.  She needs to be fitted for a new mask.   Does she need have a new study done?  If so,  how often will she be required to repeat this?  It got extremely upset with the initial test in 2010.
  5. 5 Mike 23 Apr
    I've been asked to do a sleep study and seem to be being "blackmailed" by my doctor who insinuates that my meds sleep meds may not be renewed. My sleep time has improved with lifestyle changes to 6-7 hrs a night. Is there a need for myself and my doctor to do this study. The med for sleep is zopiclone. 
  6. 6 AASM 18 Apr
    Marco - Not everyone with sleep apnea has daytime sleepiness. You should ask your doctor if you are a candidate for a home sleep apnea test, which allows you to sleep in the comfort of your own home. In either case, we strongly encourage you to be evaluated for sleep apnea. Untreated sleep apnea can have a drastic impact on your health - increasing your risk for high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. These risks can be greatly reduced by treating sleep apnea.
  7. 7 Marco 12 Apr
    I was referred for a sleep study however I refused to go.  I can't see myself in some strange place trying to sleep with a thousand wires attached to me.  I don't think I need one any way.  I virtually ever feel tired (unless I work out and well there's a reason to be tired).  Yes I snore loud and have at times stopped breathing during sleep usually only when I'm beyond tired (only happened when I worked approximately 17 hours a day 7 days a week).  Still though my doctor continues to suggest I do the sleep study.  Just don't see any benefits of having one.
  8. 8 Raquel 30 Oct
    For the past year I have been told that I grind my teeth when I sleep and I also sleep talk.  I don't remember either of these events happening and I don't feel any of the symptoms of grinding teeth.  
  9. 9 megyn 12 Nov
    I have had night terrors for a while and now they are happening everyday. I had a sleep study about 5 years ago and they said nothing was wrong, I still sleepwalk and talk and scream and cry but my mom and therapist say I don't need another one and I think that I do what do I do???
  10. 10 PAUL FEIL MD 05 Nov
    PATIENTS should be advise to take their usual pm meds, including chronic sleep aids, to make the night a "usual "sleep.