Did you know the word ‘apnea’ is from a Greek word that literally means ‘no breath’? Sleep apnea is when your breathing briefly stops while you sleep, potentially many times each night.
We may be able to survive and be healthy without sugar, carbs or – shudder – coffee, but we can’t survive or be healthy without adequate breathing. So, if there is any chance you have sleep apnea, getting tested is important.
Not so long ago, you would have needed to spend a night in a sleep laboratory (usually called a ‘sleep lab’) to have your sleep assessed, undertaking what’s known as polysomnography (or PSG).
Technology then advanced to a level where you could get wired up for a PSG at a lab but then return home to sleep. You can still choose either of these options, but new advances have meant you have more convenient options including lightweight and unobstructive devices that you can wear like a watch, a ring, or a small sticker on your chin.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of a sleep labs versus at home sleep apnea tests to help you decide which sleep apnea testing method is best for you.
Sleep labs are dedicated facilities set up for the assessment and treatment of sleep disorders. Staffed by sleep technicians and overseen by respiratory and sleep physicians, there are numerous public and private options across Australia.
The typical sleep lab offers individual rooms with a bed and monitoring equipment. You’ll be ‘wired up’ to sensors that monitor around 20 physiological variables, including breathing rate, airflow, heart rate, blood-oxygenation, eye-movement, leg movement and brain waves.
Advantages of sleep lab testing
- More complex testing: Having a sleep apnea test in a sleep lab allows for more complex testing than is possible at home.
- Testing for other sleep disorders: Sleep apnea is just one sleep disorder. Having a sleep apnea test in a sleep lab allows for assessment and diagnosis of sleep disorders like periodic limb movement disorder, restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy and REM sleep behaviour disorder.
- Observation by staff: In addition to the measurements happening via the sensors, sleep lab staff can observe the data and you during sleep, which can provide useful additional information. This observation can also be helpful or needed for someone who has more complex medical needs or who might need assistance during the night.
Disadvantages of sleep lab testing
- Long waiting lists: There is a finite number of sleep lab beds available in Australia. As more people are becoming aware of the adverse effects of sleep apnea, sleep lab waiting lists can become very long. Delayed assessment means delays in getting treatment for the potentially serious condition of sleep apnea.
- GP referral needed: Any assessment that requires a GP referral adds an additional step for those seeking answers to their sleep problems. That’s an even bigger problem during these days of overloaded GP clinics.
- Clinical environment: While a sleep lab bed might be comfortable, it’s not your own bed. By necessity, a sleep lab bed is within a clinical environment, meaning that there will be different noises, temperatures, airflow and smells to your own bedroom, all of which can be off-putting when you’re trying to sleep.
- Hospital schedules: Some sleep labs will adapt their schedule for shift-workers however, in general, you’ll need to fit in with their routine rather than go to sleep and wake up when you normally do.
- Travel time and costs: Depending on where you live, your nearest sleep lab clinic might be some distance from your home and work. This means time and costs associated with travel. And, you’ll be away from home and out of your normal routine, which can be a problem for people who have responsibility for children or pets.
- Not portable: Most sleep lab tests involve your sensors being attached to the wall, meaning that once you’re wired up, you won’t be able to wander around. This also means you’ll need help to ‘unplug’ before heading to the toilet overnight.
At home sleep apnea testing
At-home sleep apnea testing can take a variety of forms, which you can read more about in our article titled ‘Best Sleep Apnea Tests at Home in Australia’.
Whichever type of at home test you choose, there are advantages and disadvantages to consider.
Advantages of at home sleep apnea testing
There are many reasons why men and women are choosing to test for sleep apnea at home.
- Avoid waiting lists: Testing at home allows you to side-step sleep lab waiting lists meaning you can get tested faster. This also means that, if your results show you do have sleep apnea, you can start to experience the positive effects of treatment sooner.
- Efficiency: By testing for sleep apnea at home, you avoid the time and costs associated with travel to and from a sleep lab. For many at home tests, you don’t need a GP referral, saving that additional step. And, if you are in a lower-risk category for impacts and complications of sleep apnea, you’ll take less time from sleep health professionals, allowing them to focus on those with more complex needs.
- Choice of test night and times: You can do an at home sleep test any night that suits you. You can choose a night when you are less likely to be interrupted or when you are free from evening or early-next-morning commitments.
- Your bed: There’s nothing like sleeping in your own bed! Testing for sleep apnea at home means you are in your usual environment which helps mean your results are relevant to your everyday (or should we say ‘every night’) life.
- Fewer discomforts: Though sleep lab staff will do all they can to ensure you are comfortable, having up to 20 sensors attached to your body while you sleep is hardly ideal. Wearing a watch-style sleep apnea test is far less intrusive meaning you’re more likely to experience a usual sleeping night. And, you’re ok to get up if needed to go to the toilet or attend to kids or pets.
- Direct to your door: Some at home sleep tests can be ordered online and delivered straight to your door. Talk about convenience!
Disadvantages of at home sleep apnea testing
When you’re considering an at home sleep apnea test, make sure you’re comfortable with these limitations.
- Not as detailed an assessment: While you get all the information that is needed to assess and diagnose sleeping conditions, the data isn’t as exhaustive as sleep lab testing.
- GP referral needed: Any assessment that requires a GP referral adds an additional step for those seeking answers to their sleep problems.
Which option is right for you?
By reviewing the pros and cons for different options of sleep apnea testing, you can decide whether a sleep lab or at home test is best for you.
If you’re keen to read more about sleep apnea testing, you can read our other articles on this site. If you are then in any doubt, please see your GP and follow their advice on which sleep apnea test is best for you.
Oliveira MG, Garbuio S, Treptow EC, et al. The use of portable monitoring for sleep apnea diagnosis in adults. Expert Rev Respir Med. 2014;8(1):123-132. doi:10.1586/17476348.2014.850421
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About Catharine Nixon