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Sleep disorders affect millions of Americans. These disorders affect not just adults but even adolescents and young children. An effective treatment plan is essential in treating such disorders. A doctor or a medical professional needs to properly diagnose a sleep disorder in order to come up with such a plan.

Sleep disorders are difficult to diagnose. This is due to the fact that different sleep disorders share similar symptoms. Most of the time it is easy to confuse one for another. Take for example chronic snoring and obstructive sleep apnea. It is difficult to differentiate them from one another. Only a trained medical professional can tell them apart.

There are several ways to diagnose a sleep disorder. Each way has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Sleep Interview

The first step in seeking treatment and an accurate diagnosis is by seeing a doctor. Before performing any tests the doctor needs to establish a patient’s history. This is something that doctors do through an interview. During an interview, the patient tells the doctor about his or her sleep patterns and history. This part also involves checking for anything in the patient’s medical history which may be causing the sleep disorder. A sleep interview will help the doctor rule out other possible reasons which may be causing the sleep disorder.

A sleep interview is not just about a doctor asking questions. It also involves a patient truthfully and accurately describing the symptoms of the disorder. This is a great way of eliminating other sleep disorders that just happen to have similar symptoms.

Aside from the interview itself, it is also important for a medical professional to conduct a physical exam of the patient. This will help the doctor determine what is causing the disorder. An example is a patient with Obstructive Sleep Apnea. By checking the patient’s airway, a doctor can check if the obstruction is due to an enlarged tonsil, swollen adenoids, or a collapsed soft palate. Each of the three has its own corresponding treatments. Once the doctor has a clear picture of the source of the disorder, the doctor can craft a treatment plan that can help the patient. A treatment plan is not just for the treatment of the sleep disorder, but for the treatment of other underlying medical conditions as well.

Sleep Diary

A sleep diary is a record that a patient keeps over a one to two-week period. In a sleep diary, an individual records information about the quality of sleep he had over a period of a week or two. A sleep diary should also contain a record of the patient’s sleep habits. The patient can then discuss the information collected in the sleep diary with a physician. A sleep diary is an easy way to determine if the disturbances that a person experiences are due to his or her sleeping habits.


Actigraphy is another method that can help diagnose a sleep disorder. It can objectively measure sleep parameters and average motor activity up to a few weeks at a time. An actigraph is a small device that looks similar to a wristwatch. This device has an accelerometer housed inside it. It can accurately measure sleep-wake patterns. Most of the time doctors use this device in patients with suspected Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders.


Polysomnography (PSG) is a test that doctors use on a patient while the patient sleeps. This is also called a sleep study. During this test a doctor will observe the sleeping patient. The doctor will record noticeable sleep patterns and use these observations to come up with a diagnosis. Among the data that a PSG collects include:

  • Heart rate
  • Brain waves
  • Respiratory rate
  • Eye movement
  • Blood oxygen levels
  • Skeletal muscle activity

If a doctor suspects that a patient has sleep apnea, the doctor might recommend a split-night test. This is a test where the doctor spends the first half of the night diagnosing the patient. The second half of the night is where the doctor spends time trying to determine the best treatment for the patient.

There is also a home sleep study for the evaluation of possible sleep apnea. This doesn’t require a hospital stay. The patient can conduct the tests without the supervision of a sleep specialist. This type of test also requires fewer sensors compared to in-laboratory ones.

Electroencephalogram (EEG)

This is another way for a doctor to determine if a patient has a sleep disorder. An Electroencephalogram (EEG) is a test that a doctor or a sleep specialist can use to evaluate the electrical activity in the patient’s brain. This device tracks and records brain wave patterns. In order to do this a medical professional will attach small flat metal discs known as electrodes to the scalp of the patient. There is a wire connecting the electrodes to a computer. These electrodes analyze the electrical impulses in the brain. It then sends this information to a computer that records the gathered data.

The length of this test varies. However, a sleep specialist may require a patient to undergo a 24-hr EEG if needed. Aside from the EEG, they might also use a video recorder to capture any seizure activity.

An EEG can detect problems in the electrical activity of the brain. Doctors can use this information because there are sleep disorders associated with certain brain activities.

This test is also a great way to rule out other medical conditions with symptoms similar to sleep disorders. For example, seizure disorders have symptoms similar to that of Restless Leg Syndrome.

Treating a disorder starts with its proper identification. A doctor cannot prescribe a medication or a therapy if he doesn’t know what he is treating. Thankfully there are several effective and accurate tests available nowadays. These tests can help pinpoint the exact sleep disorder. A doctor can also use it to determine the source of the sleep disorder. On top of these, a doctor can also use these tests to determine if there are other underlying medical conditions that they need to treat.

The proper diagnosis of a disease is a huge step towards getting the right treatment. What’s separating a patient from a good night’s sleep might just be a single visit to a doctor.

Additional Resources:

Epworth Sleepiness Scale

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How Sleep Disorders are Classified by Doctors

There are many sleep disorders. Each with distinct characteristics that distinguish them from one another. However, there are some characteristics that sleep disorders share. Most sleep disorders have one of the following symptoms: Excessive daytime sleepiness Difficulty falling asleep Difficulty staying asleep Abnormal movements, sensations, or behaviors while sleeping There… Read More »How Sleep Disorders are Classified by Doctors