How Sleep Labs Work

Sleep Lab Landscapes

For people who feel they're overly tired or are experiencing other sleep-related troubles, the first line of defense is typically their primary care physician, who will perform a preliminary evaluation and physical.

Before their appointments, patients are advised to keep a sleep diary for a couple of weeks. The information they collect should include what time they went to bed and got up in the morning -- as well as whether or not they felt rested during the day or in serious need of a nap. They'll also want to record their quality of sleep. Did it take long to fall asleep? Did they wake? How many times? For how long? Coming armed with this sort of knowledge will help the doctor determine an underlying cause.

If the PCP can't diagnose the issue, or suspects the cause but needs confirmation, he or she may refer that patient to a sleep lab to see a specialist. Sleep labs are increasingly common as the importance of treating sleep disorders becomes more evident. Some 70 million Americans experience a sleep disorder, and with more than 80 different types of disorders out there, symptoms can vary quite a bit [source: American Academy of Sleep Medicine]. Many of the disorders are mild annoyances, while others are severe disturbances so serious they can be fatal. Some are quite common -- such as general insomnia, which affects about 30 percent of adults at any given time and about 10 percent of adults chronically [source: American Academy of Sleep Medicine]. Others are incredibly rare -- such as fatal familial insomnia, which affects the members of only about 40 families in the world [source: 20/20]. Other problems considered sleep disorders include restless leg syndrome, habitual snoring, sleep starts, sleep paralysis, confusion arousals, teeth grinding and circadian rhythm sleep disorders.

At sleep labs, patients are interviewed by a specialist, and following that, they may be asked to undergo a polysomnogram, or sleep study. During the test, technicians and technologists monitor patients' sleep in a variety of ways, to help diagnose disorders. Polysomnograms often take the form of overnight sleep studies, but can also occur during the day, to diagnose conditions such as narcolepsy. People who are diagnosed with sleep disorders that require treatment devices, such as obstructive sleep apnea, may return to have the devices calibrated. And some sleep labs are also involved in sleep research, recruiting volunteers to assist in scientific studies.

Next up, we'll delve into what goes on during an overnight polysomnogram.