Don't lose sleep over a visit to a sleep lab

Jan 16, 2016

Sleep is essentially to human life. So when something goes wrong and your sleep is regularly interrupted, or you can’t stop sleeping, it can be a serious problem. After seeing a doctor, your next stop might just be a sleep lab. The thought of spending a night in a lab can be a scary idea for many people.

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Lois Krahn demystifies the process of studying sleep in the lab. Krahn is a psychiatrist and researcher at the Mayo Clinic Sleep Disorders Center in Arizona which sees over 3,000 people annually.

Krahn says that most people end up in a sleep lab because either their doctor or a family member is suspicious the person has trouble breathing at night, or sleep apnea. Other symptoms that could prompt a sleep study include unusual movement like sleepwalking, leg kicks or twitching. Or, if a patient can’t sleep or can’t stay awake but there are no symptoms, a doctor may hope a visit to the sleep lab can identify the problem.

During a traditional sleep study, the entire body is studied. Krahn says that includes: movement of brain waves, muscle movement, breathing patterns, heart rate and oxygen levels. Sleep labs use infrared lights so the patient can sleep in a dark room, but they can be observed and/or videotaped.

Krahn says doctors need to monitor a minimum of two hours of sleep in order to have confidence that what they’ve observed is accurate. Experts prefer at least a six-hour sample of sleep.

If you are prescribed a sleep study, Krahn recommends you ask lots of questions in order to know what to expect during your visit and what you can bring with you.

When you arrive at the sleep lab, Krahn says you should expect it to take about an hour to be hooked up to all the various monitors.

Many people think it would be difficult to sleep while being connected to so many wires, and while being observed. But Krahn says the alarm patients feel at first, generally subsides.

“Almost everyone the next morning says, ‘once I realized I could move in fairly unrestricted way…. I forgot about those wires and I could fall asleep.’ They often are surprised how those were not a big deal during the night,” said Krahn.

The most common diagnosis after a sleep study is sleep apnea. Krahn says only about 1 in 100 people sleepwalk, and it’s most common among children and young adults. Krahn says sleepwalking only needs treatment when it’s frequent and potentially dangerous, such if the patient is falling or wandering outside.  But she says it’s quite a rare situation when that severe.

Sleep clinics can also help diagnose narcolepsy, or daytime drowsiness.

In recent years, there’s been a bit of an explosion in home sleep monitors. Krahn says they are all a little different – for example, some look purely at breathing issues, are limited ability to monitor sleep. What is important, says Krahn, is that the type of home monitor be matched with what the patient and doctor suspect is going on. Krahn says it takes an educated physician doctor or sleep team to know if a home sleep study is the correct choice.