Q & A: When Sleep Apnea Looks Like Insomnia

Keisha was wondering whether to have a sleep study.

“I asked my doctor to give me something for my insomnia,” she wrote, “but he wants me to have a sleep study first. He thinks I might have sleep apnea. I don’t think I do. I don’t snore (as far as I know). I wake up a lot at night but I’m not short of breath or gasping for air.

“Besides, how could I get any sleep at all with those wires attached to my head! You say sleep studies aren’t helpful for people with insomnia. So what’s your opinion here? Should I have a sleep study or will it just be a waste of my time?”

insomnia and daytime sleepiness may actually be sleep apneaKeisha, a 37-year-old graphic designer, wrote to Ask The Savvy Insomniac recently with a question about having a sleep study.

I asked my doctor to give me something for my insomnia, she wrote, but he wants me to have a sleep study first. He thinks I might have sleep apnea. I don’t think I do. I don’t snore (as far as I know). I wake up a lot at night but I’m not short of breath or gasping for air.

Besides, how could I get any sleep at all with those wires attached to my head! You say sleep studies aren’t helpful for people with insomnia. So what’s your opinion here? Should I have a sleep study or will it just be a waste of my time?

When Is a Sleep Study Useful?

Keisha is right: I’ve blogged about sleep studies before because I’m skeptical about their value for people with simple insomnia. As conducted and scored today, they do very little to help insomniacs other than rule sleep apnea and other sleep disorders out.

But if a doctor suspects you have sleep apnea, it’s important to verify that objectively. A sleep study is then in order, at a sleep clinic or with one of the newer devices for use at home.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a serious problem. During sleep, the tongue falls back against the throat, collapsing the upper airway. This keeps you from breathing, deprives you of oxygen, and increases your level of carbon dioxide until you wake up enough to start breathing again.

OSA compromises the sleep you get, leaving you sleepy and prone to mistakes and accidents. It also leads to serious health problems. Repeated episodes of apnea stress the heart, increasing your susceptibility to hypertension, heart attacks, and other cardiovascular diseases. It’s also associated with weight gain, type 2 diabetes, inflammation, asthma, and acid reflux.

In short, it’s nothing to fool around with.

Often Looks Like Insomnia

But here’s the problem: In most cases, people with OSA are not aware of these repeated awakenings because they occur beneath the level of consciousness. Convincing support for this assertion came in a review of medical records published in the December 2014 issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Take a look at some numbers here:

  • Of 1210 insomnia patients presenting at a sleep clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico over a period of 8 years, about three-quarters (899) were using sleep aids regularly or occasionally. The majority of these—710—were using prescription sleeping pills. The rest were using over-the-counter sleep aids.
  • None of the 899 medication users reported improved sleep. So they, as well as the others, whose sleep had failed to improve following drug-free insomnia treatments, were seeking further assistance.
  • All of the patients were verbally screened for OSA. Then 942 underwent sleep studies.
  • About 91 percent tested positive for moderate to severe OSA. Yet a screening tool used by many primary care physicians to ascertain the likelihood of sleep-disordered breathing failed to detect it in 32 percent.
  • What’s more, the patients taking prescription sleeping pills were least likely to report symptoms of apnea and the most likely to report severe insomnia and other health problems.

In other words, it’s easy to mistake OSA for insomnia, and primary care physicians may do the same. You’re then treated for insomnia when you should be treated for apnea, compromising your quality of life and increasing your vulnerability to heart and other serious health problems down the line.

The Take-Away

Occasionally I hear from people like Keisha who doubt that a sleep study could tell them anything they don’t already know. There’s a chance they could be right. On the other hand, this is one instance when what you don’t know could end up hurting you a lot. And now, with much less expensive home testing devices available, there’s less reason for concern about cost.

If your insomnia takes the form of waking up several times at night and if, after being interviewed by your doctor, he or she suspects you might have OSA, bite the bullet and have the test. Insomnia is no picnic, but untreated apnea is worse.

Sleep Studies: Do You Really Need One?

If you haven’t had a sleep study, you may wonder if spending the night at a sleep clinic might help the doctor understand your problem and how to fix it. Polysomnography, or PSG, is the test conducted at the clinic. New guidelines from the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) clarify when PSG is useful in cases of chronic insomnia and when it isn’t. Here’s a summary and explanation of the guidelines.

Sleep studies are useful when insomnia is complicated by another disorderWhen I ask people with persistent insomnia if they’ve had a sleep study, the common responses I get are these:

  • “I had one and all I learned from it was that I don’t have sleep apnea.”
  • “I want one, but my doctor won’t write the prescription.”

If you haven’t had a sleep study, you may wonder if spending the night at a sleep clinic might help the doctor understand your problem and how to fix it. Polysomnography, or PSG, is the test conducted at the clinic. New guidelines from the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) clarify when PSG is useful in cases of chronic insomnia and when it isn’t. Here’s a summary and explanation of the guidelines.

When a Sleep Study Is in Order

PSG is good at detecting sleep apnea, sleep-related movement disorders, and violent or harmful behavior that might be occurring at night. If a doctor suspects that your insomnia is associated with any of these disorders, you’ll likely be going in for a sleep study.

Occasionally a person with insomnia reports such an unusual assortment of symptoms that, even after taking an extensive patient history, the doctor can’t figure out what’s going on. Here, too, PSG may help. The doctor may also prescribe a sleep study if you’ve undergone treatment for insomnia (with or without drugs) but your sleep has failed to improve.

When Sleep Studies Won’t Help

But neither the ABIM nor the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends sleep studies for other insomnia patients. Here are some of the reasons.

1.  PSG cannot do much except confirm the symptoms you report to the doctor during a clinical interview.

  • Let’s say you wake up several times at night and have trouble falling back to sleep. PSG may confirm that you experience these wake-ups but will not shed light on why.
  • Or maybe your problem is that it usually takes you a long time to fall asleep. Upwards of $2,000 is a lot to spend on a procedure that merely corroborates what you already know.

2.  PSG does a poor job of discriminating between normal sleepers and people with insomnia. In fact, up to 50 percent of the time, the brain activity of insomniacs looks identical to that of normal sleepers.

3.  In some insomniacs, there is abnormal brain activity occurring at night—activity typically associated with being awake. But standard PSG will not show evidence of this wake-like activity. As a measure of what’s going on in the brain at night, PSG is not finely tuned.

4.  Finally and importantly, in most cases of persistent insomnia, PSG will not suggest a course of treatment that differs from treatment that would be prescribed based on a thorough clinical interview.

  • If your complaint is that you’re a light sleeper and wake up frequently at night, the doctor will probably prescribe cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) or some other behavioral treatment before considering medication. PSG might corroborate your symptoms but would not alter the diagnosis or the treatment.
  • Or let’s say your main complaint is that your thoughts keep you too wound up at night to fall asleep easily. The doctor isn’t going to need for you to undergo a sleep study in order to diagnose and treat the problem.

The Bottom Line

Sleep studies are an indispensable tool for people suspected of having sleep apnea and many other sleep disorders. But as conducted now, they’re of no help to insomnia sufferers unless your insomnia is related to another health problem.

If you’ve had a sleep study, what did you learn from it?