How Is A Sleep Apnea Test Done?

A sleep apnea test, also commonly known as a polysomnography, is a comprehensive sleep study that is performed to diagnose sleep disorders, particularly sleep apnea. This test can either be conducted at a sleep center or at home using portable devices, depending on what your doctor recommends. During a sleep apnea test, various physiological parameters are recorded while you sleep to monitor your breathing patterns, heart activity, oxygen levels, and brain waves.

Understanding Polysomnography: The Standard Sleep Study

Polysomnography is the gold standard for diagnosing sleep apnea and other sleep-related disorders. This test requires an overnight stay at a sleep center, where you will be monitored by a team of sleep specialists. When you arrive at the sleep center, you will be shown to a private room that is designed to feel as comfortable as possible, mimicking a hotel room or a cozy bedroom.

Preparation for Polysomnography

One of the first steps in the process is preparation. You may be advised to avoid caffeine or alcohol on the day of the test, as these substances can interfere with sleep patterns. You should also maintain your regular sleep schedule as much as possible in the days leading up to the test, as this helps the sleep specialists get an accurate picture of your sleep habits.

Getting Settled

Once you are settled in your room, a technician will place a series of sensors on your body. These sensors are painless and are designed to measure various physiological parameters such as brain waves (using an electroencephalogram or EEG), eye movements, heart rate (using an electrocardiogram or ECG), muscle activity, and breathing. You will also have small prongs placed in your nostrils to measure airflow and straps around your chest and abdomen to measure breathing effort.

During the Sleep Apnea Test

When the night begins, the collected data starts flowing into the monitoring system located in a different room. You are free to move around and change sleep positions as you normally would; the sensors are designed to be flexible and non-intrusive. If you need to get up in the night to use the bathroom, you can inform the technician, who will temporarily disconnect the sensors.

Sleep Monitoring

Throughout the night, the sensors will continuously monitor various bodily functions. Key areas being monitored include:

  • Brain waves: Help determine sleep stages and detect disruptions.
  • Eye movements: Help identify REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep stages.
  • Heart rate: To check for irregularities that might indicate sleep disturbances.
  • Muscle activity: Monitors any muscle movements or twitches that occur during sleep.
  • Respiration: Tracks breathing effort and airflow to detect apneas (pauses in breathing) or hypopneas (shallow breathing).
  • Oxygen levels: Ensures that oxygen levels remain stable throughout the night; low oxygen levels can be a sign of sleep apnea.

In some cases, the polysomnography may also involve additional testing for leg movements, snoring sounds, and body position monitoring. The comprehensive data collected during the night provides a clear picture of your sleep health.

Interpretation of Results

After the sleep study is complete, the gathered data undergoes thorough analysis. The sleep specialist will review the recordings to identify any abnormalities or disruptions in your sleep patterns:

Identifying Sleep Apnea

If you have sleep apnea, the data will show repeated episodes of paused or shallow breathing, characterized by a reduction in airflow (hypopneas) or complete cessation of airflow (apneas). The specialist will also observe drops in oxygen levels and possible fragmented sleep, where frequent awakenings disrupt the natural sleep cycle.

Sleep Architecture

A critical part of analysis involves assessing your sleep architecture, which refers to the different stages and cycles of sleep throughout the night. The sleep specialist will check how much time you spend in each sleep stage (NREM and REM) and look for any abnormalities.

Home Sleep Apnea Testing

For some patients, an in-lab polysomnography may not be feasible. In such cases, a home sleep apnea test (HSAT) might be recommended. These tests are less comprehensive, but they are effective for diagnosing moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea.

Preparation for HSAT

Preparation for a home sleep apnea test is similar to a lab test. You may receive a detailed guide or booklet from your healthcare provider explaining how to set up the portable monitoring equipment. You are generally advised to avoid caffeine and alcohol and to follow your regular sleep schedule.

Setting Up the Equipment

The home sleep apnea test kit typically includes a small device worn on your wrist, chest belts, nasal cannula, and pulse oximeter. Your healthcare provider will explain how to set up these components. You will wear the equipment at home in your own bed, ensuring that you replicate your natural sleep environment as closely as possible.


While the home test may not monitor as many parameters as an in-lab test, it is sufficient for identifying apneas and hypopneas. The wrist device, chest belts, and nasal cannula will collect data on your breathing patterns, oxygen levels, and airflow throughout the night.

Data Analysis

Once you complete the test, you will return the equipment to your healthcare provider, who will analyze the collected data. This analysis focuses primarily on your respiratory parameters and oxygen saturation levels during sleep. Based on the results, your doctor can diagnose sleep apnea and recommend appropriate treatment options.

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Potential Risks and Discomforts

Both in-lab and at-home sleep apnea tests are generally safe and non-invasive. However, some patients might experience mild discomfort due to the sensors and monitoring devices. In an in-lab setting, being under observation and sleeping in an unfamiliar environment might make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep.

For those taking the home sleep apnea test, the main challenge could be correctly setting up and wearing the equipment. It might take some time to adjust to sleeping with the sensors, but most people find them manageable.

Treatment Following Diagnosis

If your sleep apnea test confirms that you have sleep apnea, your doctor will discuss treatment options with you. Common treatments for sleep apnea include:

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP)

The most widely recommended treatment for obstructive sleep apnea, CPAP therapy involves wearing a mask connected to a machine that delivers a steady stream of air pressure to keep your airways open during sleep.

Oral Appliances

For those who find CPAP devices uncomfortable, oral appliances offer an alternative solution. These custom-made devices help position the jaw and tongue to keep the airway open.

Lifestyle Changes

Sometimes, lifestyle changes can significantly reduce sleep apnea symptoms. Losing weight, quitting smoking, and avoiding alcohol and sedatives can all contribute to improved sleep quality.

Consequences of Untreated Sleep Apnea

It’s important to treat sleep apnea because untreated sleep apnea can have serious consequences. Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to daytime fatigue, mood disturbances, and reduced cognitive function. More critically, untreated sleep apnea is associated with increased risks of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and hypertension. Addressing the disorder can improve not only sleep quality but also overall health and well-being.

Finishing Thoughts

Undergoing a sleep apnea test is a crucial step in diagnosing and treating sleep apnea. Whether conducted in a sleep center or in the comfort of your own home, these tests provide invaluable insights into your sleep patterns and respiratory health. Understanding what to expect during a sleep apnea test can help you feel more at ease and prepared. If you suspect that you have sleep apnea or if you are experiencing symptoms like excessive daytime sleepiness, loud snoring, or observed pauses in breathing during sleep, consult with a healthcare provider. Effective diagnosis and treatment can greatly enhance your quality of life and safeguard against potential health risks.


  • Aiden Lawrence

    I'm Aiden Lawrence, a certified Sleep Science Coach and senior editor of GoodSleepHub, proud parent of two amazing kids, and a pet lover with a cat and a dog. Join me as we explore the world of sweet dreams and comfy pillows. Let's make bedtime the highlight of your day!

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