There are many sleep clinics – or sleep “labs” – around the country; all large cities have a few. You can check the phone book for clinics near you.
Ideally sleep disorders are treated by a cross-functional team, and some large sleep centers and hospitals can offer these. Most clinics, however, are mostly diagnostic centers. Relatively few people with sleep disorders visit specialized doctors.
These clinics usually have a supervising physician but the majority of the work is done by technicians. You might never see a physician at the clinic, but that should not be a concern as experienced technicians can almost always handle the routine work of conducting the tests. A doctor will get the results and interpret them.
A study at a sleep clinic can be expensive, but many insurance programs will pay for it if your main doctor refers you to the clinic. The doctor who has been handling your sleep disorders should make the referral. You will probably be asked to fill out a detailed history of your sleep patterns and problems and list of medications you take and use of tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine. You may feel this is pointless and that you have already gone over this with your doctor, but there is a reason the clinics need you to fill out these forms, if only to protect themselves legally. Also, your participation in completing these forms forces you to think again about your situation and problems.
Most sleep clinics studies require overnight visits, or even more than one night. Apnea and narcolepsy can usually be diagnosed in one night (and maybe part of the next day), while insomnia often requires visits several nights in a row (you can go to work during the day).
You sleep with electrodes attached to various points on your body. If you’ve ever had an electrocardiogram, it’s like that. The electrodes go on your head and your eyes, your chin, and chest. Depending on the type of study ordered by the doctor, the configurations can be different. You wear these electrodes in bed; they collect information during the night. A computer will record your brain waves (indicating the phase of sleep), eye movement (indicating REM sleep), muscle tension, and breathing patterns.
There is often a camera (adjusted for low light) and an audio-recorder in the room also. Sometimes the technicians will let you sleep until you wake up naturally, and sometimes they will wake you at a pre-selected time.
You won’t get any answers in the morning when you leave the sleep clinic. You will have to wait until a doctor reads and analyzes the data. See our page on professional sleep organizations.
Before the 1970s there were no stand-along sleep clinics, so they are relatively new. The increasing use of sleep diagnostic machinery was the main driver in the establishment of these facilities.
Sleeping away from home
Many people find sleeping in a new location difficult. (Travelers find the first night in a hotel tougher than subsequent nights.) Curiously, some patients report falling asleep at a clinic easier because they are not particularly trying to get to sleep. Either way, the effect of a new location does not alter the results. The tests will still show the sleep disorders you have.
Remember: sleep clinics do not cure your disorder! They diagnose a problem or confirm a preliminary diagnosis. They can also test out a CPAP machine and see if that helps. This information is important before the patient buys an expensive CPAP machine.
Sleep clinics also do MSLTs, which typically do not require an overnight stay although MSLTs are often included as part of a comprehensive sleep study along with an overnight.
We have no position on whether accreditation from national organizations is required for a sleep clinic. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine certifies facilities, and have accredited over 1000 clinics nationwide. Accreditation Commission for Health Care is the second largest national accrediting organization for sleep labs and home sleep testing and is the only accreditation organization with a quality assurance system certified to ISO 9001:2008. Total revenue of sleep labs in the US is $6 billion per year, according to Reuters.