Should I Visit a Sleep Clinic?


Perhaps you have noticed yourself experiencing symptoms of sleep disorders, such as daytime tiredness, difficulty falling asleep at night, or a morning headache. Maybe a family member or your doctor has suggested you visit a sleep clinic, but you would like more information first. We explain what a sleep clinic is, what happens at a sleep clinic, and how to decide if you need to visit one.

What Is a Sleep Clinic?

A sleep clinic — often also called a sleep center — is a medical center in which medical professionals conduct sleep studies, as well as diagnose and treat sleep disorders. Stanford University claims their sleep clinic, which was founded in 1972, was the first. Sleep specialist doctors and their staff generally run sleep clinics. As of 2014, the American Association for Sleep Medicine (AASM) has certified 7,500 sleep doctors and accredited over 2,500 sleep centers in the U.S.

What Happens at a Sleep Clinic?

Sleep clinics often administer the following studies intended to diagnose sleep disorders:

  • Polysomnogram (PSG): A polysomnogram, commonly referred to as a "sleep study", involves staying overnight in a sleep clinic while multiple devices record measurements as you sleep. These devices often measure brain waves that indicate stages of sleep, eye movements, body movements, snoring, breathing, heart rate, and blood oxygen level. A polysomnogram can help diagnose sleep-related breathing disorders, narcolepsy, nighttime seizures, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep behavior disorder, and more.
  • Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT): Unlike the overnight polysomnogram, the MSLT occurs during the day, usually over the course of multiple naps. An MSLT determines how sleepy a person is by measuring how quickly they fall asleep. Specialists often give the MSLT the day after a polysomnogram. The MSLT can help diagnose narcolepsy, hypersomnia, and other disorders that involve excessive sleepiness.
  • Maintenance of Wakefulness Test (MWT): The MWT is similar to the MSLT in that it occurs during the daytime, over multiple testing periods. Instead of measuring how quickly a person falls asleep, the MWT is intended to see how well a person can stay awake. This test is often given to those already diagnosed with a sleep disorder, like narcolepsy, to determine how well their medication is working.

Sleep clinics may also make arrangements for an at-home sleep study, which is becoming an increasingly common test to diagnose sleep apnea. After diagnosis, people with sleep apnea may be asked to visit their sleep clinic in order to have their continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine titrated, so the pressure of airflow expelled from the machine matches what is needed to treat their sleep-disordered breathing.

Although these tests are most common, sleep clinics conduct a wide variety of evaluations and treatments because there are a wide variety of sleep disorders. Sleep doctors may ask questions, request that a sleeper maintain a sleep diary, order blood tests for specific lab studies, screen for other health and psychiatric disorders, and prescribe medication or even therapy. They may also educate patients on sleep hygiene practices to help them sleep better.

When Should I Visit a Sleep Clinic?

You should discuss visiting a sleep clinic with your primary care provider if you have symptoms that suggest you might be experiencing a sleep disorder. The prevalence of sleep disorders has risen in recent years. Symptoms of common sleep disorders include having trouble falling or staying asleep, feeling excessively tired or nodding off during the day, and snoring, choking, or gasping for breath during sleep.

Be aware that your insurance might only cover your visit to a sleep clinic if your primary care physician has written you a referral. To avoid having to pay out of pocket, contact your health insurance company for clarification prior to scheduling the appointment, and make sure to contact your primary care provider’s office for a referral if your insurance plan requires it. Your primary doctor can ask questions about your symptoms and determine if visiting a sleep clinic is the best choice for you.

Some people choose to try improving their sleep hygiene prior to visiting a sleep clinic. If you want to try to improve your sleep first, try these sleep hygiene tips:

  • Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool
  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day
  • Only use your bed for sleep and sex
  • Avoid watching TV or looking at your phone in bed
  • Exercise regularly, but not in the hours before sleep

If your symptoms continue despite good sleep hygiene, see your doctor.


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