Dr. Anna Charbonneau

Therapy for people living with stress, depression, and medical conditions

Two Tests for Sleep Apnea

by Dr. Anna Charbonneau | Tags: sleep, physical health

It might feel like getting tested for sleep apnea is a huge process, but it's not. It's actually quite simple. What kinds of tests are available? What does testing involve? How long do the tests take? Let's go over it and take the mystery out of the process.

Yesterday, we reviewed how sleep apnea is diagnosed. Today we're going to cover the actual process of testing for sleep apnea.There are two types of tests for sleep apnea.

At Home Testing for Sleep Apnea

There are machines that are used now to reliably test for sleep apnea at home. These machines are usually about the size of a breadbox or smaller. When you pick up the testing machine, the technician will explain to you in detail how to set it up at home.

At home sleep tests usually measure breathing, heart rate, and blood oxygen levels. They do not measure brain waves. They are quiet and unobtrusive, meaning you’ll still be able to sleep as you normally do.

What happens during home testing for sleep apnea

When you go to sleep, you set up the testing box as instructed, and the box will record your data and send it to the lab. You return the testing equipment to the lab.

What to expect from the results

An at home test can tell you whether you have sleep apnea. A qualified medical provider needs to review the data collected and write a report for your doctors. Sometimes this process can take a few days to a few weeks. The results will not be immediate.

If you do have sleep apnea, usually the doctors will recommend an overnight sleep study in their sleep center.

Overnight Testing in a Sleep Study Center

Overnight evaluation of sleep is a very common evaluation. Doctors order overnight testing for other major problems with sleep. Sleep apnea, insomnia, and nightmares/night terrors are all common problems that can be evaluated in a sleep center.

The thought of spending the night somewhere unfamiliar can be nerve-wracking, but it doesn't have to be. Let's go through what you can expect if your doctor recommends you complete an overnight sleep study.

What is a sleep lab like?

Overnight sleep studies usually happen in a comfortable setting. Sometimes the sleep center has a special contract with a local hotel. Sometimes they have specially set-up rooms in their own office building. The room is usually set up to look like a hotel room with a comfortable bed, pillow, nightstand, lamps, and other small touches that provide warmth and comfort. You can bring your own pajamas, books, magazines, slippers, and whatever else you normally use before and during sleep in your own home.

Before going to sleep, the technician will come in and place all of the sensors needed to measure your breathing, heart rate, and brain activity. Sleep centers like this also usually video record the time in the lab as a matter of routine, because they also evaluate for other sleep disorders, like insomnia, night terrors, etc.

Why is video monitoring in a sleep study important?

It might feel odd to know your sleep is being recorded, but video can provide very valuable data for a sleep doctor. Take, for example, the following story if you need convincing.

In training, a professor told the story of a woman he'd seen who complained of severe and terrible insomnia. She insisted she did not sleep at all and was awake all night every night. Understandably, she was exhausted and distraught so the doctor ordered a sleep study. Her sleep study was video recorded as per usual routine. She is seen getting into bed, tossing and turning a bit, and then lo and behold, she fell asleep. Her breathing and heart rate were normal and her brain waves showed the typical patterns expected in sleep. But when she woke up, she said, "See? I did not sleep at all, that was awful!!" She saw the video recording and couldn't believe it. Something else was really happening to this person and truly distressing her. But it wasn't insomnia and they would have never known it without a full sleep study, including video monitoring.

What happens during an overnight sleep study?

Once your sleep study begins, if you need to get up for any reason (to use the bathroom, to stretch, etc.), the technician will tell you what signal to use; sometimes it's a small bell or buzzer. Just press whatever signal they tell you, and someone will come right away to disconnect the sensors so you can leave the bed.

An overnight sleep study is very simple, painless, and straightforward. Most of the people I've sent for a sleep study have told me later with surprise that it was the best night of sleep they'd had! Of course, that's not the case for everyone, but a sleep study is not scary, difficult, or painful.

When will I get the results of the sleep study?

Similar to an at-home sleep study, the data and results need to be reviewed and interpreted by a qualified medical professional who will write a report. You can usually expect the results in 1-2 weeks. You can ask the sleep technician or doctors when you can expect the results and they can usually give you an accurate estimate.

How to Request a Sleep Study

If you think you might have sleep apnea, call your primary care doctor. Tell them why you think you might be at risk for sleep apnea and request a referral for a sleep study.

Next up we're going to talk about what the treatment is for sleep apnea.