Finding Out If You Have Sleep Apnea: Is An At-Home Test Or Polysomnography The Better Diagnostic Tool?

If you feel extremely tired during the day, have trouble concentrating and are frequently irritable, the reason behind this may be obstructive sleep apnea. With sleep apnea, your airway is too narrow to breathe normally when your muscles relax during sleep. Your brain recognizes you're not getting enough oxygen, then wakes you momentarily so that you can breathe again. These moments of wakefulness are too short to be remembered, but they severely interfere with your ability to get a good night's sleep.

Most cases of obstructive sleep apnea go undiagnosed, and it can have serious consequences. Sleep apnea places strain on your cardiovascular system, increasing your chances of developing high blood pressure. It also increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

If you think that you may be suffering from sleep apnea, it's important to tell your physician. For a definitive diagnosis, you have two options: an at-home sleep test or polysomnography at a sleep clinic. What's the difference between the two and which one is more accurate? Read on to find out.

At-Home Sleep Test

An at-home sleep test kit contains a nasal cannula that measures your breathing and a pulse oximeter finger clip that measures the amount of oxygen in your blood. Some kits also contain telemetry leads that you place on your chest or a band that you wear in order to measure your respiration rate during the night.

You wear these while you sleep at home, and they record your breathing and oxygenation level during the night. Afterward, you send the device back to the manufacturer. They interpret the results recorded by the device and send a report to your physician. If you stopped breathing several times during the night, it will show up in your test results — this is an indicator that you have obstructive sleep apnea.


When you visit a sleep clinic for polysomnography, a sleep medicine technician will use all of the same devices used in an at-home kit. However, polysomnography also includes leads attached to your head that measure your brain waves during sleep. This allows the sleep clinic to know if you're in deep sleep or shallow sleep. Leads attached to your arms and legs record your movement during the night, which can help determine if you're a fitful sleeper.

Is an At-Home Test or Polysomnography Better for Diagnosing Sleep Disorders?

At-home sleep tests tend to give false negatives due to the low sensitivity of the equipment used during the test. They're good at detecting moderate and severe obstructive sleep apnea, but they're not sensitive enough to detect minor cases of sleep apnea that can still cause symptoms. At-home tests have the advantage of being performed in a comfortable environment — your own bed. They're also less expensive.

Polysomnography can not only detect minor cases of obstructive sleep apnea, but the extra equipment used during the test can detect other sleep disorders as well. These include narcolepsy and periodic limb movement disorder. Both of these disorders can interrupt sleep in the same way that obstructive sleep apnea does, and they also cause similar symptoms of fatigue and tiredness during the day. However, they won't be detected by an at-home sleep test, since at-home tests only monitor your breathing and nothing else.

Ultimately, you should tell your doctor about your symptoms. He or she will likely recommend an at-home test as a first-line diagnostic tool. If the results come back negative, you'll want to consult a sleep medicine specialist to undergo polysomnography in a sleep clinic. You may find that you have a minor case of obstructive sleep apnea or another sleep disorder that's causing your persistent daytime fatigue.

For more information, contact a company like Elkview General Hospital.

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