How are sleep disorders diagnosed?

In order to diagnose a sleep disorder, the sleep specialist performs a comprehensive sleep history and exam. For certain problems (such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy) additional laboratory procedures may be required.

Some hospitals offer sleep studies. "For selected patients, we perform a polysomnogram, an overnight sleep study in a comfortable and child-friendly sleep lab," says Dr. Carin Lamm. "Parents stay overnight with their child, while technicians monitor the child continuously and also provide one-on-one care for physical and emotional support."

During a sleep study, the child is monitored for multiple brain and body activities, including brain waves (EEG), eye movements, limb movements, muscle activity, and heart rate. Other monitors measure breathing, chest and abdominal respiratory movements, airflow at the nose and mouth, and oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

Sleep disorders can be diagnosed by a doctor. Your general physician may be able to diagnose your sleep disorder based on your symptoms, medical history, and a physical examination. Or, your doctor may refer you to a sleep clinic for further testing. The sleep clinic may suggest you do a sleep study, during which you will spend several hours at a sleep clinic while machines take measurements as you sleep.

To get an accurate diagnosis of your sleep problem, your healthcare provider or a sleep specialist will assess your symptoms and review your sleep diary and your bedmate's report. He or she will also talk over specific details about your health history and sleep habits and any emotional concerns or mood changes to see if a psychological problem could be disrupting your sleep.

Your healthcare provider may also ask you to complete two short quizzes: The Epworth Sleepiness Scale, which gives an indication of your sleepiness during eight daily activities, and a Sleep Evaluation Test, a true/false questionnaire.

A physical examination, including some laboratory tests, can rule out underlying medical causes of your sleep problems. Common diagnostic tests for sleep disorders include the following:
  • A polysomnogram monitors several sleep-related functions while you slumber, such as brain waves, heart rate, breathing rate, eye movement, muscle activity, and blood oxygen levels.
  • A Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) sleep study measures air flow through your nose and mouth during sleep. (This may be combined with the polysomnogram.)
  • A Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT), or nap study, measures the tendency to fall asleep, while your brain waves, chin-muscle activity, and eye movements are recorded.
  • A Maintenance of Wakefulness Test (MWT) is similar to the MSLT, but it measures your ability to stay awake in a nonstimulating environment.

Together, all of the above information can help your healthcare provider get an accurate diagnosis and determine which therapies will be most effective for your condition.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.