If you’ve been experiencing prolonged sleep disturbances that leave you tired and groggy the next day, it may be time to seek help from a sleep specialist. You have two options for testing — a lab study or an at-home sleep test.
It’s not as simple as deciding whether to test at home. There are significant differences between the two testing methods. Which one you should choose depends largely on the sleep troubles you’re experiencing and on your medical history. Here’s what to know about at-home sleep testing and lab studies.
What is an at-home sleep test?
There is one goal of at-home sleep tests — to confirm a sleep apnea diagnosis. It won’t be able to determine if you have additional sleep disorders like insomnia. However, at-home sleep tests are good for their intended purpose. There are several reasons someone may choose an at-home sleep study. First, they’re typically more affordable than lab studies. Second, you don’t have to rearrange your schedule or plan to accommodate sleeping somewhere else for a night.
There are several types of at-home sleep tests on the market. Some are simple wristbands and finger clips, while others have a chest strap with the device fixed to the middle of your chest. Some options also have nasal cannulas.
All at-home sleep tests diagnose sleep apnea based on the measurements of factors including your breathing, blood oxygen levels, airflow and heart rate. The list of specific measurements will vary by the device you choose. One of the most popular FDA-approved at-home sleep tests you can buy is the WatchPat One.
Before you can buy or rent an at-home sleep test, your doctor must determine whether you fit the criteria for having a high probability of sleep apnea. Typical signs of sleep apnea include interrupted breathing during the night, loud snoring and feeling fatigued after sleeping eight hours. Without indicators for sleep apnea, you shouldn’t use an at-home sleep test.
Read more: What Is Inspire for Sleep Apnea?
- At-home sleep tests are significantly cheaper than lab sleep studies. Many at-home sleep devices are around $150, though that cost ranges depending on the equipment.
- They are more convenient than lab studies because you wear them at home, with no clinical presence.
- They are significantly more accessible since you can buy them online after speaking with a doctor.
- At-home sleep tests are generally less accurate. They don’t capture the same amount of data as a lab study.
- You don’t have support from lab staff to troubleshoot potential problems. It’s completely up to you to ensure the device is on and worn properly.
- Depending on your underlying medical conditions, you may get compromised results. Those with congestive heart failure will have oxygen saturation drops too, but it doesn’t necessarily mean your issue is sleep apnea.
What is a lab study?
A lab sleep study, or polysomnography, is used to diagnose sleep apnea and other sleep disorders affecting your life. Lab studies are more involved, requiring an overnight visit with sensors on your head, chest and limbs. They are often conducted in a hospital or sleep center.
Because they are in a controlled environment with more advanced equipment monitoring things like your brain waves, your eye movements and your heart’s electrical activity, lab studies are more accurate than at-home sleep options. They can determine when and why your sleep is disturbed and test for things like limb movement disorders or narcolepsy that at-home options can’t. Clinicians can also introduce CPAP machines during the sleep study to see if you find relief.
However, they’re much more expensive because they’re performed in a clinical setting with more equipment and staff on-site. Most insurance companies offer some coverage, though you must check your plan to determine the requirements for your sleep study.
- Lab studies can test for conditions outside of sleep apnea and diagnose a wider range of sleep disorders like narcolepsy.
- They’re more accurate than at-home tests because they have more advanced technology and medical staff for monitoring.
- You have staff there to help.
- Lab studies are significantly more expensive than at-home options. The cost can range from roughly $1,000 to $7,000, depending on your insurance, doctor fees and the sleep study parameters.
- They’re not accessible to some, as you’ll need transportation, time and the ability to take time off work if necessary. Some labs have a required study time, which may differ from your typical sleep schedule.
- You may experience long wait times. It often can take weeks or months before your appointment time.
Which one should you choose?
Both types of tests test for the same thing — sleep apnea. However, lab studies aren’t limited to only sleep apnea as at-home tests are. But if you’re dealing with sleep apnea, you may be torn between which is right for you. Both options have obvious benefits and drawbacks that one should consider.
The good news is you’re not alone in this decision. Both at-home and in-lab sleep studies require a consultation with a medical professional to determine the potential for sleep apnea. Once that is established, your doctor will prescribe the device and interpret the results for diagnostic purposes. They’re not over-the-counter devices that can be used for self-diagnosis.
Below are the TL;DR recommendations for who is best suited for each test.
Choose an at-home sleep study if:
- Your doctor has determined that you have a high probability of sleep apnea, with no other conditions that may interfere with results.
Choose an in-lab sleep study if:
- Your doctor suspects your sleep disturbances could be more than sleep apnea. Or you have additional medical conditions that could compromise the results of an at-home study.
Too long; didn’t read?
At-home sleep tests are an excellent choice for people who are highly suspected of having sleep apnea. The devices can detect changes in your breathing, heart rate and blood oxygen levels, allowing your doctor to make an official diagnosis.
However, they’re not for everyone. A lab-based sleep study will be required for more complicated cases in which other underlying medical conditions could skew the results. Lab sleep studies are used to diagnose more than just sleep apnea. If you think you have a sleep disorder like narcolepsy, sleepwalking or restless leg syndrome, consider a lab sleep study.