Written by: Alison Deshong
Updated March 10, 2021
Sleep apnea is growing more common (1) by the year, but this widespread sleeping disorder is still majorly underdiagnosed (2). While part of the problem is public education about the symptoms of sleep apnea, another issue is the difficulty of diagnosis.
Physicians have traditionally diagnosed sleep disorders such as sleep apnea with a sleep study. Performed overnight and in a lab, a sleep study can be time-consuming and expensive for the patient.
Now, sleep specialists are starting to implement sleep study tests at home to make diagnosing breathing-related sleep disorders easier and more accessible. We’ll explore the differences between an in-lab vs. an at-home test, the benefits of doing your sleep test at home, how at-home testing works, and if a home sleep study is right for you.
What Is the Difference Between a Sleep Study and a Home Sleep Study?
A sleep study, also referred to as polysomnography (3), is a non-invasive clinical test that can help your doctor diagnose sleep-related disorders including:
- Sleep Apnea
- Restless Leg Syndrome
- Periodic Limb Movements Disorder
Sleep specialists typically perform sleep studies overnight at a sleep center lab so they can closely monitor your sleep patterns. In-lab sleep studies measure a number of metrics, such as:
- Heart rate
- Eye movement
- Blood oxygen levels
- Brain waves (EEG)
- Muscle activity
- Body position
- Breathing effort and rate
The data from a sleep study helps your doctor gather evidence and make a conclusive diagnosis. Self-reported symptoms are useful, but there’s no way to know the exact nature of your symptoms without overnight observation. If your doctor suspects you may be suffering from a sleep disorder, they will likely order a sleep study.
In recent years, obstructive sleep apnea has grown increasingly common. More patients than ever need access to sleep tests, and, as a result, sleep specialists have devised a way to monitor a patient’s sleep in the comfort of their own home.
A home sleep study uses a small, portable monitoring device to record your breathing patterns while you sleep in your own bed. New advances promise to make home sleep study equipment even smaller and easier to use (4) in the future.
An at-home sleep study is not as comprehensive as an in-lab sleep test and can only diagnose obstructive sleep apnea. However, portable sleep tests perform just as well (5) as in-lab sleep studies for obstructive sleep apnea. The typical home sleep test for sleep apnea records your:
- Nasal and oral airflow rates
- Respiratory effort
- Oxygen levels
What Are the Benefits of a Home Sleep Study?
Although in-lab sleep studies are comprehensive and generally non-invasive, they have several drawbacks. Let’s look at the key advantages of a home sleep study over an in-lab sleep study.
More Convenient and Comfortable
In-lab sleep studies are a valuable clinical tool, but they can be inconvenient and uncomfortable. You need to set aside an entire night when you can travel to a sleep clinic and stay overnight.
Falling asleep in an unfamiliar place isn’t always easy. If you struggle to fall asleep when you’re not in your own bed, imagine trying to sleep in a laboratory with countless wires and monitors attached to you. A home sleep study allows you to sleep in your own home and in your own bed with less cumbersome monitoring equipment.
Even if you don’t mind the inconvenience of an in-lab sleep study, accessibility is still an issue. You may not even have the option to undergo a traditional sleep study if you don’t live near a sleep clinic.
Additionally, many people may struggle to coordinate transportation and childcare for a night away from home. A home sleep study removes these barriers and increases access.
A home sleep study requires less equipment without the need for a sleep technician. In contrast, an in-lab sleep study is much more labor and resource intensive. This makes a home sleep test more affordable than a lab test (6).
How Do I Know If a Home Sleep Study Is Right for Me?
A home sleep study is right for you if you and your doctor think you may be suffering obstructive sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea blocks your airways, prevents you from getting enough oxygen, and disrupts the normal, restorative function of sleep.
Some of the signs of sleep apnea (7) include:
- Loud snoring
- Sleeping with your mouth open
- Frequent awakenings
- Awakening due to trouble breathing
- Daytime sleepiness
- Changes in mood
If your symptoms point to sleep apnea, then a home sleep study may be right for you. Discuss your symptoms with your doctor who can order you an at-home sleep test.
How Does a Home Sleep Study Work?
An at-home sleep study is generally easier to complete than an in-lab sleep test. Specific instructions vary depending on your health care provider and the equipment you use. However, we’ll cover the general steps so you know what to expect.
Meet with Your Doctor
The first step is making an appointment with your primary care physician to discuss your symptoms. If you’re experiencing several of the common symptoms of sleep apnea, your doctor may refer you to a sleep specialist or directly order you a home sleep study.
Find a Home Sleep Study Kit
Once your doctor has determined you'd benefit from a home sleep study, they can provide you with a home sleep study kit. Because patients only need the equipment for a few days to perform their sleep tests, doctors and sleep specialists often stock their own portable sleep study monitors to lend out to their patients.
Complete the Test
Next, you complete your sleep test at home. Home sleep test kits typically have several sensors that attach to the body to monitor your breathing as you sleep. Most kits include:
- An elastic band around the chest to monitor respiratory effort
- A small clip on the finger for measuring oxygen levels
- Thin tubing taped by your nose to measure airflow
The monitoring equipment shouldn’t cause much discomfort. Sleeping with your home sleep test equipment for one or more nights can help gather a wider range of data for your doctor to assess. When you’re done, make sure to return your home sleep kit to your health care provider.
Discuss Your Results with Your Doctor
Once your doctor or sleep specialist has reviewed your sleep study data, you can discuss the results. Depending on the nature of your results, they may diagnose you with obstructive sleep apnea and present you with treatment options. If the results aren’t conclusive, they may order another at-home sleep test or prescribe you an in-lab sleep study to get a clearer picture of your sleep patterns.
When Should I Get an In-Lab Sleep Study?
A home sleep study isn’t right for everyone. In certain cases, it’s better to visit a sleep clinic for a more comprehensive, in-lab sleep study.
A home sleep test only monitors symptoms associated with disordered breathing. If your doctor thinks you might have sleep issues unrelated to breathing, you likely need an in-lab sleep study. For example, only an in-lab sleep test can determine if you have a neurological or movement disorder that’s disrupting your sleep.
Sleep apnea is increasingly common, but also woefully underdiagnosed. Getting the treatment you need can help improve your quality of sleep and quality of life, but it all starts with a proper diagnosis. Home sleep studies provide a convenient, accessible, and cost-effective way to get a conclusive diagnosis. Talk with your doctor to learn if a home sleep test is right for you.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26380759/ Accessed on March 2, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21603432/ Accessed on March 2, 2021.
- https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003932.htm Accessed on March 2, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30566912/ Accessed on March 2, 2021.
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3883848/ Accessed on March 2, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28159092/ Accessed on March 2, 2021.
- https://medlineplus.gov/sleepapnea.html Accessed on March 4, 2021.