What is a Sleep Doctor? What They Do and When to See One - Happy Sleep

What is a Sleep Doctor? What They Do and When to See One

Posted by Dr Jack Gerschman on

Young woman sitting on her bed unable to sleep

A sleep doctor or sleep medicine physician is a sleep specialist trained to diagnose and treat various sleep disorders such as insomnia, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, and parasomnias. Sleep doctors go through extensive training and often operate out of sleep clinics due to the multidisciplinary nature of sleep medicine.

Everyone's experienced a bad night of sleep. But what happens when that bad night’s sleep turns into weeks and months of poor sleep? If that's you, you might have a sleep disorder.

This is why sleep medicine and sleep specialists exist. In this article, we'll look at what sleep specialists do and why their role is so important. Read on to learn about the science behind sleep and the professionals who make good sleep possible.

Why We Sleep

While many of us have difficulty falling asleep or struggle to get the recommended 8 hours, some people suffer from a debilitating sleep disorder that can have a huge impact on their lives. According to a study conducted by the Sleep Health Foundation, more than half of adult Australians are suffering from at least one chronic sleep symptom. And 14.8 per cent have symptoms which could result in a diagnosis of clinical insomnia.

These and other sleep disorders not only disrupt nightly rest but can have profound implications on daily life, productivity, and overall mood and physical health. For example, poor sleep has been linked to a 5x(!) increase in the risk of stroke and increases in other cardiovascular conditions.

Chronic sleep problems can also be a contributor to mental health issues. For example, 40% of people with insomnia may have a diagnosable mental-health condition.

Thankfully there's sleep medicine and the sleep medicine specialists dedicating their lives to understanding and treat sleep disorders.

What is Sleep Medicine?

A sleep physician monitoring a patient during a sleep study

Sleep medicine focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of various sleep conditions such as circadian sleep disorders or obstructive sleep apnea. When sleep comes easily, you don't even think about it. So you might be fooled into thinking that sleep medicine revolves around prescribing sleeping pills or recommending a bedtime routine. But sleep is actually quite complicated - especially when it goes wrong.

Sleep affects almost all the systems of the body: the nervous system, endocrine system (the glands in your body that create and release hormones), and the cardiovascular system.

Because of this, a sleep physician often operates out of specialised sleep clinics and may consult with other experts on sleep. For example, sleep technologists run patients through tests and conduct sleep studies so that a diagnosis can be made. Neurologists investigate sleep's impact on the brain and nervous system and how they interact. Pulmonologists focus on conditions like sleep apnea where breathing repeatedly stops and starts which interrupts sleep. Psychologists address the mental and emotional aspects of sleep disorders and use therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I).

Many sleep disorders straddle the line between the physical and the mental. A multidisciplinary team ensures both these aspects get addressed. And with different specialists weighing in, there's a more rounded perspective on the patient's condition for more accurate diagnoses and tailored treatment plans.

Specialty Training that a Sleep Doctor Undertakes

The journey to becoming a sleep medicine specialist is rigorous. It begins with undergraduate studies, followed by medical school. After completing a residency in a related field such as neurology, aspiring sleep specialists undergo specialised training in sleep medicine - often at a dedicated sleep clinic. This intensive pathway ensures they are well-equipped to handle the complexities of treating sleep disorders and sleep related behaviour issues, armed with the latest knowledge and techniques.

But sleep medicine is a dynamic field, with new research findings emerging and the landscape of treatments evolving. So it's crucial for sleep medicine practitioners to stay on top of the latest research and developments in sleep medicine. Whether it's a new treatment modality for insomnia or breakthrough research in sleep psychology, sleep specialists are always searching for better ways to diagnose sleep disorders and help their patients sleep better.

Sleep Conditions Diagnosis

Woman sleeping at her desk at work

Sleep medicine specialists have many tools at their disposal to diagnose a sleep issue. These include at-home and in-lab sleep tests. They might recommend an at-home sleep test first if your overall health is good and your case is not too serious.

If your case is more complicated, or you have underlying health issues such as heart disease, then a sleep study at a laboratory will be recommended. This is because a lab sleep study uses far more sophisticated equipment which gives better data that will enable the sleep physician to make a more accurate diagnosis.

Common Sleep Disorders

Sleep Apnea:

A condition where breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. Sleep apnea is much more than an annoying snoring tendency and can lead to serious health complications if left untreated.

Insomnia:

People suffering from insomnia struggle to get to sleep and often wake up in the middle of the night (if they get to sleep at all). Everyone has had a bad night's sleep, but when it becomes chronic it can take a toll on mental, physical health and the ability to function througout the day.

Restless Legs Syndrome:

A neurological disorder that causes an uncontrollable urge to move the legs, especially at night, and is often accompanied by uncomfortable sensations.

Parasomnias:

Parasomnias are a category of sleep disorders that are characterised by unusual behavior when falling asleep, during asleep, or in the transition phases between sleep and wakefulness. These can include sleep walking, night terrors, and sleep paralysis. In more extreme cases sufferers can act out vivid dreams potentially leading to them injuring themself or thier partner.

Narcolepsy:

Narcolepsy affects the brain’s ability to regulate sleep-wake cycles and causes persistent daytime sleepiness.

Treatments and Therapies for Sleep Disorders

Man sleeping while breathing through a CPAP machine

Once a patient has been diagnosed with a sleep condition, there are a variety of treatment options depending on the specifics of the condition and the patients medical history.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP):

CPAP machines are used to treat sleep apnea by delivering a steady stream of air to keep airways open, ensuring uninterrupted breathing throughout the night.

Medications:

Depending on the diagnosis, a sleep medicine specialist might prescribe medication to make sleep easier or to help alleviate symptoms. Medications range from sleep inducers for insomnia to dopaminergic agents for restless legs syndrome.

Behavioural Therapies for Insomnia:

Beyond medications, cognitive-behavioural therapy can be life-changing for insomnia sufferers. Often we're our own word enemies and are consciously or unconsciously engaging in habits that make sleep less likely. By addressing these behaviours associated with insomnia, patients can develop healthier sleep patterns and habits.

Sleep Devices:

If your sleep condition is not causing serious health issues but is still a source of stress, frustration, and fatigue - think loud snoring or teeth grinding - then an affordable device you can use at home might be the way to go.

How to Find a Sleep Specialist Near You

The easiest and most common ways to find a sleep clinic or sleep specialist near you is through a Google search or an online directory. The best directories for finding medical specialists are Health DirectHealthShare, and Doctify.

But just because a provider is listed in a directory doesn't automatically mean they are the best of the best, or that they will get you a result you're after. 

But there are certain signals you can look out for to help you assess and find a reputable sleep specialist:

Board Certifications - Look for a sleep doctor who are board-certified in sleep medicine.

Patient Reviews - Patient testimonials and reviews can give insight into a doctor's approachability, expertise, and overall patient satisfaction. While one negative review shouldn't deter you, a pattern might be a red flag.

Professional Affiliations - Affiliations with renowned sleep medicine organisations or institutions such as the World Sleep Society or Australasian Sleep Association indicate a doctor's credibility, and commitment to continuous learning and staying updated in the field.

Online Platforms and Referrals - Specialist directories, medical review sites, and personal referrals from primary care doctors or loved ones can be excellent resources.

If you or someone you know has a chronic sleep problem, don't hesitate to seek expert guidance. Your health, mood, and quality of life depends on good sleep and can transform with the right support.

A Potential Alternative to Sleep Doctors

 

Front view of The SweetSleep nightguard

If your sleep condition is not causing serious health issues but is a source of stress, frustration, and fatigue (think loud snoring or teeth grinding). Or if you've tried many options without success, then an affordable device you can use at home might be the solution.

The Happy sleep anti snoring mouthpiece makes it easier to enjoy a comfortable, uninterrupted and snore-free sleep every night, without the drawbacks that inferior snoring splints present.

Unlike other snoring mouth-guards, the Happy Sleep mouthpiece is specifically designed to enhance nasal breathing, which has been shown to reduce snoring and a range of other conditions.

Learn more about The Happy Sleep anti-snoring mouthpiece here.

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