Sleep Disorders

Updated 23 July 2014

Diagnosing sleep disorders

How are sleep disorders diagnosed?


Many things can cause short-term sleep disturbances, such as work stress, relationship problems, financial difficulties or temporary health problems. These sleep problems usually resolve themselves when the reason for the anxiety or sleeplessness is removed.

A sleep disorder, however, disrupts your life and not just for a few days. Sleep disorders are serious and can affect your cognitive and physical functioning. They also increase your chances of becoming obese, having a heart attack or stroke, or becoming diabetic.

The main symptoms of sleep disorders include difficulty falling and staying asleep, excessive tiredness during the day, and sleep disruptions.

Read: Bad sleep tied to diabetes problems

Insomnia causes people to struggle with initiating or maintaining sleep. Excessive tiredness during the day could point to a condition such as narcolepsy, and sleep disruptions could be caused by sleep apnoea, excessive snoring, night terrors, sleepwalking and the grinding of the teeth (bruxism).

It is important that sleep disorders, which are neurological disorders, be diagnosed and treated correctly.

Here are some ways in which doctors and sleep specialists can diagnose sleep disorders.

Medical history. The doctor will ask you detailed questions about your medical history, any conditions you may have, and what medication you are taking. You may also be asked about lifestyle choices, as these could contribute to sleep difficulties.

Many conditions can affect sleep: heartburn, diabetes, heart failure, arthritis, kidney disease, nocturia (the need to get up to urinate constantly during the night), thyroid disease and breathing problems.

Some medications which could contribute to sleeping difficulties include diuretics, medication containing alcohol or caffeine, corticosteroids, beta blockers, antihistamines, and certain antidepressants, to name but a few.

Sleep diary. You could be asked to put together a sleep diary over a number of weeks. Information recorded in this will include how many hours you sleep each night, how long you take to fall asleep, how often you wake up and for how long, how rested you feel in the morning and how sleepy you might feel during the day.

Some details you may have to ask you partner, such as whether you snore or gasp during sleep, or whether you jerk your limbs.

Read: Sleep problems cost billions

Sleep laboratory
. This will require you to stay overnight in a sleep laboratory while the sleep specialist does what is called a polysomnogram (PSG). Monitors and electrodes will be placed on your face, your chest, your limbs, your scalp and your finger.

While you are sleeping, these different devices will measure several things: the level of oxygen in your blood, how much air moves in and out of your lungs, your eye movements, brain activity, heart rate and rhythm and muscle activity.

A variety of sleep disorders can be detected in a sleep laboratory. It is not a painful process, but it could be uncomfortable to try and sleep in a strange place while being observed.

Read: Sleep problems make kids naughty

Multiple sleep latency test (MSLT).
Devices are used to measure how sleepy you are during the day. This test is often used to diagnose narcolepsy.

This will usually be done when you have already spent a night being evaluated in a sleep laboratory. It is often called a nap study.

You will be asked to nap for twenty minutes four or five times during the day, and monitoring devices on your scalp and face will be able to record how long it takes you to fall asleep, and when you reach the various stages of sleep, especially REM.

People who fall asleep very easily and reach a stage of deep sleep within minutes could be suffering from narcolepsy. Daytime sleepiness could also point to sleep apnoea.

Read more:

What are sleep disorders?
Types of sleeping disorders
Managing sleep disorders


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Sleep disorders expert

Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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