Home Sleep Study: What to Expect + Alternatives

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Hi, I’m Dr. B, practicing functional dentist for 35 years. I graduated from the Dugoni School of Dentistry in San Francisco, CA in 1987 and am a member of the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine (AADSM), Academy of General Dentistry (Chicago, IL), American Academy for Oral Systemic Health (AAOSH), and Dental Board of California. I'm on a mission to empower people everywhere with the same evidence-based, easy-to-understand dental health advice that my patients get. Learn more about Dr. B

If you’re reading this article right now, you must be curious about what to expect when you’re prescribed a home sleep study. There are differences between this and a sleep app or a lab sleep study performed in a sleep clinic.

I screen all of my patients for sleep disordered breathing, as sleep apnea and other sleep issues are a key contributor to conditions including cavities, teeth grinding, gum recession, and periodontal disease. And I’m not the only dentist who understands the link between sleep and oral and dental health.

In fact, the field of dental sleep medicine is rapidly becoming mainstream; you may even hear your dentist ask about your sleep quality at your next checkup.

But getting access to this data isn’t always easy or convenient. Fortunately, a home sleep study can help.

Knowing the quality of your sleep is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful pieces of data about yourself that you could have. It’s right up there with your blood type and genetic predispositions to certain diseases.

We’ll take a look at how to know you need a sleep study, what to expect if your doctor prescribes you a home sleep study, and when a sleep app might be a better way for you to conduct home sleep testing.

How to Know if You Need a Sleep Study

Sleep disorders are associated with heart failure, diabetes, and many other chronic conditions. Because of this, a primary care physician, dentist, or other medical provider may prescribe a sleep study if you show signs of these illnesses.

A general dentist might suspect you have signs of disordered sleep breathing if you have:

  • Frequent cavities with no other explanation
  • A chronically dry mouth (which indicates mouth breathing)
  • Gum recession/gum disease
  • Signs of bruxism, such as flattened teeth from grinding

A sleep medicine dentist or your primary care physician may recommend a sleep study if you have other symptoms, like:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • High sleep time (over eight hours every night)
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Learning disabilities or behavioral disorders (in children)
  • Obesity
  • Chronic kidney disease

Once you’ve gone through the process of having the test done and receiving your test results you may get a diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). If you’re diagnosed with OSA or any other sleep movement disorders, your doctor or specialist will discuss treatment options, like a CPAP/APAP or an oral appliance at a follow up appointment.

You can read more about treating sleep apnea in my article on the topic here.

But what kind of sleep study is right for you? What is a home sleep study and how is it different?

What is a home sleep study?

A home sleep apnea study allows your doctor to see what happens while you sleep, but at home rather than a sleep center. This is done by wearing monitoring devices overnight that remotely provide test results to your doctor. Sleep studies are designed to measure:

  • Sleeping heart rate
  • Oxygen level/oxygen saturation
  • Blood pressure
  • Limb movement (how much you’re moving through the night)
  • Respiratory effort/breathing effort (to see if there is evidence of a breathing disorder like obstructive sleep apnea)

A sleep app is different than a home sleep study. Sleep apps are applications you can use or download on your smartwatch, smartphone, or other wearable device that track the quality of your sleep.

First, an overnight sleep study is expensive if you have no insurance or don’t have the right prescription from a specialist. They can run $4-5K if you pay out of pocket. (Fortunately, a prescribed sleep study is almost always covered by insurance if your doctor, pulmonologist, or ENT refer you.)

Also, if you’re terrified at the prospect of sleeping in a lab, you’re not alone. Even though a sleep lab is designed to resemble a hotel room instead of a standard hospital room. Most people would much rather have home sleep apnea testing in the comfort of their own bed.

That’s why home sleep tests can be so beneficial. Not only is a home test less expensive than one at a standard health care office—which equals a smaller copay or co-insurance payment—it’s probably more comfortable, too.

Let’s look at what you can expect if you get a full sleep study (at a sleep clinic or at home)…Plus, I’ll tell you about my favorite sleep app!

What happens during a home sleep study? How is it different from a sleep clinic?

Traditionally, sleep testing is done in a hospital under the care of a sleep physician. Participating in a study may be difficult and inconvenient for a number of reasons:

  • The wait times to get an appointment at in-person sleep labs are lengthy, potentially taking months to get in
  • The hoops you have to jump through to ensure insurance coverage for the study can be extensive
  • The study itself is unpleasant: sleeping, observed, in a strange hospital bed with numerous wires and other tech attached to your body is rather uncomfortable

An in-home sleep study is different because it can provide much of the same data without the hassle of a lab visit. Plus, it’s less expensive and may help limit your out-of-pocket costs.

Home sleep study kits must be prescribed by a doctor. Once you receive the kit (either via mail or directly from your doctor’s office), you wear the components of the test for the number of nights allotted for your sleep study.

The components of the monitoring device typically include two bands worn around your torso, a pulse monitor worn on your finger, and an oxygen reader tube that rests in your nose.

It’s important to try to keep the different pieces correctly attached to yourself during the nights of the study. If something falls off—which is entirely possible during a night’s sleep—the data may be less accurate and you may have to repeat the whole process again.

Once everything is in place, you only need to sleep as normally as possible for the duration of the study.

Some products will only want to look at a single snapshot night of data, while others will track your sleep data for multiple nights, gathering a set of data that reveals patterns and insights over time.

Sleep Study FAQs

Now that you have a better understanding of how sleep studies work, let’s take a look at other commonly asked questions—the answers to which will guide you when choosing the study that is right for you.

Q: How effective are home sleep studies?

A: It’s been well over ten years since I participated in my first at-home sleep study, and the technology has progressed immensely since then. That said, there are still some drawbacks.

Home sleep studies are especially effective in identifying severe obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). However, they tend to underestimate breathing events, so they may not be great at picking out mild or moderate OSA.

While breathing is the key component of the majority of sleep issues, with not-entirely-reliable data and a limited scope of investigation that does not go beyond sleep breathing, I could only describe home sleep studies as partially effective.

Q: How do doctors analyze a sleep study?

A: When a sleep study is complete, doctors will look to see how the patient breathes while asleep. Breathing issues are at the root of the most common and serious sleep disorders, which is why sleep studies focus on oxygen flow and body motion.

Q: How much does a sleep study cost?

A: An at-home study can cost in the thousands, while a lab study may cost in the tens-of-thousands.

That’s why it’s critical to take the necessary—though potentially tedious—steps to get approval from your insurance company for the study before taking action. Trust me, you don’t want to get stuck footing the full bill for either test environment.

Q: When should I opt for a sleep app instead of a sleep study?

A: If your doctor hasn’t prescribed a sleep study, s/he may not believe you show significant signs that point to a sleep disorder. However, if you’re concerned about the quality of your sleep or have chronic health issues, you may still want to test your sleep at home.

Not going for a full sleep study? Here are options to try at home.

I am a big proponent of sleep studies, but I also understand that participating in one (whether in a lab or at home) isn’t an option for everyone, nor is it necessary.

I do firmly believe, however, that we should all be participating in annual sleep “checkups”—similar to a regular teeth cleaning or a visit your primary care doctor. The good news is that these checkups can be conducted very easily and affordably with some simple, easily accessible technology.

I discuss the best sleep apps and devices in-depth here, but here are a few options:

  • Oura Ring: wearable, built-in tracking software
  • Fitbit: wearable, built-in tracking software
  • Apple Watch: wearable, built-in tracking software that syncs with iPhone
  • Bedditmattress band manufactured by Apple, syncs with Apple devices
  • SnoreLab: Android/iPhone app; listens to your snoring through the night (one of the most important factors in disordered sleep breathing)

Sleep Assessments Should Be Part of Regular Preventative Wellness Checks

Sleep specialists estimate that 18 million Americans have moderate to severe sleep apnea, and 75 percent of them don’t know it. After just one night of poor sleep, many people complain of lower energy and mood swings, and these problems are only exacerbated with multiple nights of interrupted sleep.

Over multiple days, weeks, months, and even years, poor sleep can impact a number of important health metrics, These include cognitive function, weight, risk for preventable diseases (including diabetes heart attacks), and, of course, oral and dental health.

I can’t overstress how important it is to your long-term health to have your sleep ability assessed. If your body goes through the proper stages of sleep, especially deep sleep, the benefits are abundant.

Even if your diet, nutrition, and exercise are perfect, and even if you’re getting eight hours every night, if you haven’t assessed your sleep quality, you could be missing the most important factor of your health.

No matter how you do it, it’s time to start treating your sleep like a preventative wellness check. It doesn’t matter what you choose, just get started with something.

Got more questions about what to expect from your home sleep study? Just ask me

Learn More: Why Women Are at Higher Risk for Sleep Apnea

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