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New technology revolutionizes the sleep test

For many years, getting a sleep diagnosed meant an overnight stay in a sleep lab, or the “sleep test”. Now, you can take the sleep test in your own bed!

This isn’t an article alerting you to the consequences of leaving sleep apnea untreated.

Just type three words into google - sleep + apnea + consequences - and you can read for yourself what’s potentially in store, from cardiovascular disease, to stroke, to depression. This isn’t about that. Common sense tells us that sleep is crucial to the wellbeing of mind and body. Sure, we can all do with a stark, statistical reminder from time to time, but today, we can leave that to google.

This is about something else that people cite as an impediment to finally seeking a solution to their tiredness:  the sleep test.

For many years the process leading to a sleep apnoea diagnosis has required an overnight stay in a sleep lab that’s either part of a hospital or an outpatient clinic.  This step, called the ‘sleep assessment’ or ‘sleep test’, requires electrodes to be attached to your head and body to measure your brain waves and breathing throughout the night while being monitored in real time by a technician in an adjoining room using a discreet camera.

There’s always been some drawbacks to this method. Firstly the cost can be inhibitive. Even with private health insurance, a single night in a hospital lab can well and truly absorb your $500 policy excess. There’s also the environment itself. When the goal is to assess how you normally sleep, being draped in electrodes and sleeping in an unfamiliar bed means many people struggle to relax and fall asleep as they would at home.

And now there’s also the question about what constitutes ‘normal’ sleep, and more importantly, the ability of a single-night test in unfamiliar surroundings to accurately assess it.  New research by Flinders University monitored 65,000 people nightly for eight months and found that the severity of a person's obstructive sleep apnoea varied considerably between nights.  This is because, like our blood pressure, blood sugar and mood, our sleep varies from day to day.

The study’s author, Professor Danny Eckert said while standard tests were accurate in detecting the condition, they only monitored a single night. Importantly, if that one night in a sleep lab doesn't represent your ‘typical’ sleep situation then potentially it's a wasted opportunity to accurately diagnose your sleep disorder.

"If you're only measuring them at one time point (in a lab), you might not be getting the full story," Professor Eckert said.

The study found the risk of under-diagnosing was about 20 per cent, but the risk increased to around 50 per cent in those with mild to moderate forms of the disease because their sleep disturbances varied night-to-night the most. 

The consequences of misdiagnosis can be significant given sleep apnea is linked to increased risk of heart disease, depression, traffic and work accidents, reduced quality of life, all that bad news you can google at your leisure. The good news is that effective and affordable alternatives to the lab based sleep tests are emerging.

New devices, clinically validated to diagnose obstructive sleep apnea, mean that ‘at home’ sleep tests are now an accurate, unobtrusive and affordable option. Sunrise Sleep Test

Available through sleep clinics and CPAP providers, a single wireless sensor that you tape to your fingertip or place on your chin - less than the size of a 20-cent coin – measures various sleep parameters. Importantly, as these ‘new technology’ devices are simple and don't require any electrodes or wires, your typical sleep pattern or situation is captured. The results are then automatically sent to the cloud and assessed by the qualified sleep physicians who review the data on completion.

Doctors and public health officials are hoping these ‘at home’ low touch -based tests will become an important tool in combatting the growing impact of sleep apnea on the community.

With their relative affordability and convenience (they don’t require a referral or the need for a specialist visit prior to using) it should encourage more people to address their tiredness and get tested, before any of those nasty things you can google become a reality.

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