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Sleep study or polysomnography is a test that can study or diagnose sleep disorders. The test records the brain waves and the level of oxygen in the body. The heart rate and breathing are controlled as well. The eye and leg movements would be recorded during the study. Polysomnography is performed at the sleep disorder units inside the hospital or the sleep centres. The night-time sleep patterns are recorded during the test. The test can even be conducted during the day so that the shift workers can be accommodated who are in the habit of sleeping during the morning.
The polysomnography or sleep study can even help to adjust the treatment plan if sleep disorders have already been diagnosed.

Why is the sleep study conducted?
Polysomnography monitors the stages of sleep and the cycles. It can identify when and why the sleep patterns are being disrupted. Normally the process of falling asleep begins with a stage called non-rapid eye movement. The brain waves are recorded by electroencephalography and it shows that the brain waves are slowing down. During this phase, the eyes do not move around rapidly, compared to the later stages of sleep. The brain activity picks up again after about an hour or two. The sleep begins with rapid eye movements. This is when most of the dreaming occurs.

A person would normally go through multiple sleep cycles in a night, where the sleep cycles between rapid eye movements and non-rapid eye movements every 90 minutes. This process can be disturbed by sleep disorders. Polysomnography can be recommended by the doctor in a few cases:

  • Sleep apnea or other breathing disorders - The breathing stops and starts repeatedly during sleep.
  • Narcolepsy - There is overwhelming daytime drowsiness and sudden attacks of sleep.
  • Periodic limb movement disorder - The victim involuntarily extends and flexes the legs while sleeping. It can sometimes be associated with restless leg syndrome.
  • Unusual behaviours - The doctor could be performing the test if there are unusual activities during sleep like walking or moving around. A lot of rhythmic movements could be associated as well.
  • Unexplained chronic insomnia - The doctor might recommend polysomnography if the person has trouble falling asleep or staying that way.

How does the person prepare for polysomnography?
The person might be advised to avoid alcohol or caffeine during the afternoon or the evening before polysomnography. Sleep patterns can be changed by alcohol and caffeine. The symptoms of some of the sleep disorders could worsen. Also napping in the afternoon is discouraged before a sleep study. The person is even advised to bathe or shower well before the study.

What can be expected during the sleep study?
The person arrives at the sleep centre and stays overnight. The items for the bedtime routine should be carried and the person can sleep in their might clothes. The room is much like a hotel room, dark and quiet during the test. There would even be a bathroom attached. Sensors would be put on the scalp, temples, chest and legs by the technologists, which would be connected by wires to a computer. However, enough movement would be allowed. The eye movements, brain waves, blood oxygen level, chest and abdominal movement, body position, breathing pattern and heart rate would be monitored by the technologist.

What would be shown in the results?
The measurements taken during the night would be shown:

  • Frequent leg movements disrupting the sleep might indicate limb movement disorder
  • Unusual behaviours during the sleep might show signs of REM (rapid eye movement) stage sleep disorder
  • The eye movements and brain waves during the sleep can help the health care team assess the sleep stages and identify the disruptions in the stages occurring due to sleep disorders
  • Changes in breathing and heart rate are abnormal and would suggest sleep apnea.

The doctor would review the results and discuss in length how the treatment should proceed.

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