How Are Sleep Disorders Diagnosed?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2020

Sleep disorders are usually diagnosed using a combination of the following:

  • Physical exam
  • Sleep diary
  • Sleep questionnaires
  • Sleep lab tests
  • Home sleep apnea test
  • Wearable devices

The type of exams and tests used will depend on the sleep disorder your doctor suspects you may have. Blood work may also be needed to rule out health conditions that cause poor sleep.

Physical exam

Many health conditions can impact how well a person is able to sleep, so your doctor will begin with a physical exam. After checking your weight and blood pressure, you may be asked about several things that may affect your sleep including:1-5

  • Whether you get up to go to the bathroom
  • Have pain at night
  • What medicines you take
  • Your moods
  • Exercise habits
  • Daytime energy
  • Concentration levels
  • How often you nap
  • Whether you smoke or drink alcohol at night
  • Whether you work shift work
  • If you have morning headaches
  • If you jerk or kick in your sleep
  • If you have been told you snore, gasp, or cough while sleeping
  • If you fall asleep at work or in social settings

The results of a sleep history and physical exam may suggest that you have insomnia, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, or narcolepsy. More tests will probably be needed to accurately diagnose whether you have a sleep disorder or a health condition that causes sleep problems.

Sleep diary

If you complain about poor sleep, it is common for the doctor to ask you to keep a sleep diary for at least 1 to 2 weeks. A sleep diary is simply a record of your sleep habits. This information can help your doctor understand what type of sleep problems you have. A sleep diary includes:1-5

  • What time you get into bed and how long it takes to fall asleep
  • Number of times you wake up
  • How long it takes to return to sleep
  • What time you wake up and get out of bed
  • Whether you have bad dreams
  • How sleepy or tired you are during the day
  • Nap times and how long you nap
  • How much caffeine you consume
  • If you use a sleep aid
  • How much alcohol you consume

Be ready to talk with your doctor in detail about your sleep habits. The noise, temperature, and light in the bedroom, the comfort of your mattress, and whether you sleep with a partner or pets are all important details.

Sleep questionnaires

There are a few self-tests you can use to better understand your sleep problems. The answers to these questionnaires may help you talk with your doctor:1-4

Sleep lab tests

The most common sleep disorder, insomnia, usually does not require a sleep study for diagnosis. However, for an accurate diagnosis, other sleep disorders usually require at least 1 night of testing in a sleep center lab. These tests may include:1,2

  • Polysomnography, or a lab sleep study
  • Multiple sleep latency test (MLST) if narcolepsy is suspected
  • Actigraphy if a circadian sleep-wake rhythm disorder is suspected

Home sleep apnea test

A home sleep apnea test may be useful to diagnose sleep apnea but these kits are not as accurate as sleep lab tests. That’s because a home study only measures breathing but not brain waves, sleep time, or leg movements. The device may come off during sleep. A home sleep apnea test will not detect other sleep disorders such as restless legs syndrome or narcolepsy. Still, a home test may give some people a cost-effective option.6

Wearable devices

Wearable devices, such as smartwatches, may provide helpful details about a person’s sleep. However, some studies show these devices are not accurate.2

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