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What Happens During a Sleep Study for Chronic Insomnia?

A lifelong, chronic insomniac, I recently completed an overnight sleep study at the DaVita Medical Group New Mexico Center for Sleep Medicine. My expectations were low - 32 years of sleeplessness will do that to you - but I liked the idea of being able to officially rule out certain sleep conditions, such as sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome, once and for all. Plus, whenever I complain about Sexy Nerd's snoring, he's all too quick to point out that I snore as well.

Spoiler alert - the polysomnogram found that I do NOT snore. Take that, Sexy Nerd!

Even as a baby, I had trouble sleeping. You'd think I would have had a sleep study done sooner.

My Sleep Study Experience

I arrived at the sleep clinic around 7 pm and was escorted to a private bedroom. Told to change into my pajamas, the nurse quickly added that I must do that in the bathroom with the door closed, as the bedroom is constantly monitored by cameras. It's the kind of advice you only need to hear once, yet she mentioned it several times within one or two minutes. This left me wondering if she thought the cameras were being watched by perverts.

After changing, a respiratory therapist brought me down the hallway to be weighed. This lead to my proud moment on the scale, joking "It must be my socks," and getting a laugh from a random man who was walking by. This sleep study is off to a great start, I thought confidently, feeling more like Jay Leno than myself. Oh, how quickly that ended.

All Tied Up

"I'm going to apply glue to your scalp," the respiratory therapist told me. Glue? On my scalp?? It gets better. "No matter what, you need to be absolutely certain not to use shampoo when you're trying to get it out. If you mix it with shampoo, it's all going to congeal together and you'll have to shave it out." I'd shampooed that very morning, rinsing to everyday standards but maybe not to sleep lab standards. Had I gotten it all out?!

Next came the wires and electrodes. Millions and millions of wires and electrodes. There are microphones near your mouth to listen for snoring and there are sensors above and below your eyes to sense any twitching. Wires run from your waist down each leg, through your pants, all the way to your feet to test for restless leg syndrome. I was told a sensor would be placed up my nose later and was glad I'd thought to bring a Benadryl with me. A belt is tightly strapped above your chest and another belt is tightly strapped around your ribcage. They made it difficult to breathe, so I loosened them as soon as I was alone. Then, I remembered how much I was paying for this sleep study and retightened them.

sleep study participant
Partially wired in (yes, only partially!) and laughing at myself, having finally seen my reflection for the first time.

wired with electrodes during my sleep study
The red was a surprise. What purpose could it have? I think the respiratory therapist may have gotten carried away when she was coloring on my face. 

photos from my sleep study
"Even though you're wired in, feel free to walk around," the respiratory therapist told me. Where did she think I might want to go, in my pajamas and looking like an electrical panel? 

Side note to all the gals like myself: photos taken from below make you look hella busty.

photo of face and head wires during a polysomnogram
A few more selfies and it was off to bed.

My Sleep Center Bedroom

sleep clinic in Albuquerque, NM
Back in my room, I noticed this bundle of joy next to my bed. More wires, I thought. Great.

Sleep Number mattress review and comparison

My room was equipped with a Sleep Number bed. I'd been looking forward to testing it out and possibly writing a review, but the mattress must have somehow known I'm an Amerisleep fan who has badmouthed Sleep Number, because my mattress didn't seem to work. I'd press the Up button once and the numbers would jump all the way to the top; Down and I was suddenly at the lowest setting. Despite these drastic changes, whenever I checked the Sleep Number remote, it was always on 35. I never did figure out what the 40 is supposed to do, if anything. It looks like a button, right?

blanket from Albuquerque sleep clinic
This isn't the Marriott. 

The NM Center for Sleep Medicine must have blown their entire budget on expensive, nonworking Sleep Number beds, leaving nothing for bedding. This was printed on my blanket. It did not instill confidence that I was in good hands. I think it originally said Property of US Government NNMC - Shiprock, years ago before it was deemed too old and straggly for use on a reservation. 
(NNMC = Northern Navajo Medical Center)

sleep lab cameras watch you sleep

There was a TV but no remote. I settled into bed and attempted to relax with a magazine I'd brought from home, nervously aware at least one camera was watching me. I'm still not sure what the other ceiling gizmos were for. I also got up a few times to fiddle with the thermostat. It seemed like it would run until it was too chilly, then release a loud KA-THUNK and run until is was scorching. KA-THUNK, back to freezing. It was going to be a long night.

sensors to test breathing, leg and eye movement, oxygen saturation, and more during my sleep study
Just chillaxin' while waiting for bed, feeling like a human Christmas tree. 

When it was finally time for lights out, around 11 or so, the same respiratory therapist from earlier came and attached more wires until the bed and I were one. She left, then spoke to me through a speaker in the room, instructing me to do things like breathe deeply and pretend to snore. The tests didn't go quite as planned, so she came back to adjust some of the wires and reposition a few of the glued on electrodes, taking a little of my skin in the process. I hadn't realized my sleep study would come with a free microdermabrasion.

So, how did I sleep?

I'd had some apprehension over the possibility that I wouldn't be able to sleep, rendering my study a waste of time and money, but my sleep doctor, Peter Guido, advised that it would be fine to take a sleeping pill (Unisom) during the test. The respiratory therapist also told me I was okay to take a Benadryl, lest my seasonal allergies destroy the nostril sensor. Still, it seemed unlikely I'd get a decent night's rest. I usually sleep on my side and my stomach, switching positions often and sometimes even flipping so that my head is at the foot of the bed (luckily Sexy Nerd is a deep sleeper), but this was impossible to do without pulling out any wires. For once, I had no choice but to sleep perfectly still.

I lectured myself to sleep, mentally repeating You'll have wasted all your money if you don't sleep. You'll have wasted all your money if you don't sleep. It worked. About an hour or two later though (I am a chronic insomniac, after all), I woke up. Then eventually fell back asleep. Then woke up again. Each time I awoke, I'd think about how I was freezing but couldn't get up to adjust the thermostat because I was wired to the bed. They said to press the call button if I need anything, like an extra blanket, I thought. My social anxiety wouldn't allow it though. Plus, it seemed like their blanket supplies were in sad shape. What if the Navajo reservation had refused to share any more of their blankets with the sleep clinic? It would have been embarrassing for them.

During one of my many awakenings, I felt just about ready to drift off to sleep again when my eyes were suddenly blinded by fluorescent light. The door to my room had been thrown open and the respiratory therapist was loudly announcing that she'd noticed I was awake and wondered if I'd like to get up and go home. Squinting and disoriented, I asked the time. "4:30," she said. I groggily asked if they'd be able to get more information from the test if I slept longer. "Absolutely. Your doctor said to let you sleep as late as you can." Ask for a second blanket, I thought. Don't let her leave without asking for a second blanket! She left and I eventually nodded off again, full of rage toward both of us.

Tips for sleeping during an insomnia study
Here I am after waking up around 9 am, tired, thirsty, and ready to get the heck out of the sleep center. 

Helpful Tips for Your Sleep Study...You Poor Thing

(Kidding! It really wasn't that bad. I would even recommend the NM Center for Sleep Medicine, as everyone there was really nice. Maybe bring your own blanket though.)
  1. Don't drink water close to bedtime. If nature calls, you're stuck. Technically, someone will come unwire you, then rewire you, but that's a hassle and it kinda hurts when those sensors are repositioned. Plus, I have sensitive skin, which resulted in several round, itchy welts across my neck that didn't go away for about a week. Thank goodness I'd kept the sensor repositioning to a minimum.
  2. Wear attractive, loose-fitting pajamas. Being paraded around strangers is no time for the stained jammies you've worn since 4th grade.
  3. Unless you're sure you won't get any sleep whatsoever, skip the sleeping pills. Although I was told by my doctor that it was okay to take a Unisom and by the respiratory therapist that I could add a Benadryl to the mix, I worry this affected my study results. I had a polysomnogram performed so I could get to the bottom of my everyday sleep problems, but slept in a way that wasn't typical. I may have actually slept too well, leading my doctor to think my insomnia is all in my head.
  4. Bring a book or magazine to enjoy while you wait for bedtime. Sure, you could watch TV or play a game on your phone, but then you've just demonstrated to your doctor that you have poor sleep hygiene. On camera.
  5. Press the call button! Why, oh why, didn't I ask for an extra blanket? I was freezing my butt off.
Sleep study results coming soon.

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