6 Signs You Might Need (and Qualify for) a Sleep Study

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Good morning! Are you sipping from your “Not Before My Coffee” mug? How many times did you hit “Snooze” this morning? Have you shared that meme about how being tired is just part of adulthood? It does not have to be like this. In fact, if your a.m. routine is mostly trying to pry your eyes open and you never feel well-rested, you may need a sleep study. Sleep studies are diagnostic tools that help people (and their doctors) determine what’s holding them back from a good night’s sleep. Not everyone qualifies, but those who do can benefit tremendously. Here are six signs you might need a sleep study.

What is a sleep study?

“A sleep study, also known as polysomnography, is a detailed sleep examination that allows doctors to accurately test and diagnose sleep disorders,” says Katherine Hall, a sleep psychologist with 13 years of clinical experience.

Basically, doctors observe you while you sleep to figure out why you can’t get a solid night of rest. Typically, a sleep study participant spends the night at a sleep clinic where they are hooked up to various machines that measure specific parameters.

Vivek Cherian, MD, a Baltimore-based internal medicine physician, says these parameters include heart rate, oxygen levels, brain waves, eye movements, breathing patterns and physicalizations. According to Sound Sleep Health, doctors use four different types of sensors during a sleep test. An electrocardiogram (EKG) monitors heart rate, an electro-encephalogram (EEG) monitors brain activity, an electrooculography (EOG) monitors eye movement and an electromyography (EMG) monitors muscle movement. In total, a sleep study participant can expect to have around 20 different sensors attached to their body (mostly around the head and eyes) during the study.

The measurements obtained from all of these sensors provide incredibly useful and detailed information to physicians about a patient’s symptoms. Naturally, this leads to a more accurate diagnosis.

Hall, who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) at Somnus Therapy, points out that sometimes, shift workers will participate in sleep studies during the daytime to illuminate the effect of working nights on their sleep patterns. There are also some tests that can be performed at home, like sleep apnea tests. These require a lot more effort on the part of the participant because you have to apply sensors to your own body and be sure to use the equipment appropriately.

What qualifies you for a sleep study?

It depends on the study. If you go to your doctor with specific symptoms and she needs to administer a sleep study to figure out what’s wrong, that’s one type of study. Dr. Cherian says if your doctor believes you are suffering from a particular sleep disorder like insomnia or sleep apnea, they’ll refer you to a specialist for participation in a sleep study. This can help rule out certain ailments and clarify what’s really going on for a subject.

“There is really no limit to how often you can participate in a sleep study, but if your doctor refers you for one, they are typically looking to rule in or rule out a specific diagnosis,” says Dr. Cherian.

On the other hand, some organizations are in need of folks ready to help “advance the field of sleep science,” as Hall puts it. If a sleep research intuition is testing a certain hypothesis, they may put out a call for participants. In this case, according to Hall, “each study will usually set out their own criteria for what kind of participant they are looking for. Whether that be ‘good’ sleepers, shift workers [or] those who suffer from a sleep disorder.”

6 signs you might need a sleep study

If you think you might need a sleep study, start by discussing your concerns with your doctor. They may be able to offer less intense solutions that don’t require sticking sensors to yourself or letting people (professionals!) watch you while you sleep. If any of the following sound familiar, don’t hesitate to look into sleep study options with your doctor.

1. You can’t fall asleep

Insomnia is the inability to fall (or stay) asleep. If there are no other factors—stress over an upcoming event, general anxiety, a bad mattress—preventing you from falling asleep, it could be insomnia. Symptoms aren’t short-lived (aka, this happens constantly, not just once in a while). 

2. You can’t stay asleep

See above! Insomnia may be the culprit if you are able to fall asleep but can’t stay asleep or are awake for long stretches during the night.

3. You wake up often during the night

Waking up often throughout the night could be a sign of a sleep disorder—or several. Hall notes that parasomnias are several “sleep disorders that involve unwanted experiences when you’re falling asleep, during sleep or when you’re waking up.” Abnormal movements or behaviors during the night or as you drift into sleep could jolt you awake without your understanding why.

4. You wake up gasping for air

Waking up gasping for air (or a recurring dream that you’re suffocating that wakes you up) could indicate you suffer from a sleep-related breathing disorder (SRBD) or obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). In OSA, the throat muscles contract and relax repeatedly, causing breathing to start and stop. This continuous motion can wake you up throughout the night. It’s worth noting that being male, over the age of 50, with a neck circumference over 40 cm increases the chances of developing OSA, according to Dr. Cherian.

5. You’re always tired during the day

No matter what time you turn in or when you rise, constantly being exhausted is a good sign there is something else going on. Perhaps you suffer from a circadian rhythm disorder. If your internal clock isn’t in sync with the rest of your body, sleep won’t come easily. (You could throw this out of whack if you travel over multiple time zones frequently).

6. Your fatigue is reducing your quality of life

When you are so exhausted that you cannot perform your job or enjoy the time you are awake, it’s time to ask your doctor about a sleep study. This is particularly true if you’ve noticed an increase in blood pressure or the onset of a mental health issue like anxiety or depression.

Bottom line: Sleep is essential. We need a consistent sleep schedule to ensure we’ve recharged our minds—and bodies—in the morning. Sure, you can sleep when you’re dead, but while you’re alive, you’ve got to get good sleep to enjoy life.

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Sarah Ashley is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She has covered pets for PureWow for six years and tackles everything from dog training tips to the best litter boxes. Her...