What Is a Sleep Lab? What to Expect with Overnight Testing and Studies

Formal Sleep Studies Diagnose Sleep Apnea, Narcolepsy, and Seizures

A sleep laboratory conducts overnight sleep studies and testing to diagnose sleep disorders, but alternatives may exist
A sleep laboratory conducts overnight sleep studies and testing to diagnose sleep disorders, but alternatives may exist. Getty Images

It may sound like something to do with a science experiment, but what is a sleep laboratory? When being evaluated for a sleep disorder, it is common to be observed overnight with a sleep study. This comprehensive testing can identify the causes of poor sleep, ranging from obstructive sleep apnea to narcolepsy and other disorders. In some cases, these measurements might be the only way to find an answer, but alternatives might exist. Discover what a sleep lab is and what to expect with overnight center-based testing and studies.

What Is a Sleep Laboratory?

A sleep laboratory is a specialized center that conducts sleep studies. Sleep labs may be a department that is incorporated into a hospital or clinic. They may also stand alone as a separate building, and they are sometimes even set up in hotels. Sleep labs may be accredited centers, which means they have met the standards of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. There are many centers that are also run as for-profit businesses.

In general, a sleep lab has multiple bedrooms that are set up to conduct sleep studies. These studies are generally not for research or scientific purposes. Instead, they are diagnostic or therapeutic studies. The sleep lab is the place you might go to undergo the gold standard diagnostic test for sleep called a polysomnogram.

What Is the Purpose of Overnight Sleep Testing?

Polysomnography is used to diagnose common sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, narcolepsy, sleep behaviors called parasomnias, seizures, and other disorders. You might also undergo multiple sleep latency testing or maintenance of wakefulness testing at a sleep lab. In addition, you may be started on treatment for a sleep disorder - such as using continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) for sleep apnea - and monitored.

What to Expect in a Sleep Study

You will sleep in a bedroom that may appear like any other - with the exception of some discreet equipment that monitors and records your sleep. This monitoring includes audio and visual recording. There is usually a nearby central monitoring location where the sleep technicians ensure the quality of the sleep studies.

The placement of numerous wires and sensors can be a little intimidating, but this can provide critical information about your sleep. Though most people don't sleep as well with all of these wires in place, sufficient sleep is usually obtained to diagnose the problem. In some cases, a sleeping pill can be used without changing the results of the testing to ensure adequate sleep occurs. If you have concerns about insomnia during the study, you should speak with your referring sleep specialist.

Most participants spend one or two nights having their sleep assessed. The results are typically discussed when you next meet with your sleep doctor.

Are There Alternatives to Overnight Sleep Studies in a Sleep Lab?

Fortunately, there are additional options if you feel like your wouldn't sleep well at a testing center. In cases where the study is meant to identify sleep apnea, overnight sleep testing can be done at home with home sleep apnea testing. If this testing is inconclusive, formal testing in a lab may be required.

In some cases, testing may not be required. For example, evaluation of restless legs syndrome does not require a sleep study. Speak with a board-certified sleep specialist and discover what testing may be needed and the options that are available to you. With a little effort, you can get the diagnosis and treatment you need to finally sleep better.