Sleep Specialist Overview

A sleep specialist is a medical doctor who has completed additional education and training in the field of sleep medicine. Sleep medicine focuses on sleep, sleep disorders, and sleep-related conditions, and is a subspecialty within several medical specialties, including neurology, pulmonology, internal medicine, and psychiatry.

Proper sleep plays an important role in good health. Trouble sleeping can reduce the overall quality of life and a chronic lack of sleep may worsen the severity of certain medical conditions, including epilepsy, asthma, and heart disease.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), sleep disorders affect approximately 40 million people in the United States. Sleeping problems often go undiagnosed and untreated and can occur in people of all ages, including children, teenagers, young adults, middle-aged adults, and seniors.

Sleep specialists are trained in the diagnosis, management, treatment, and prevention of sleep disorders and sleep problems. They often work in sleep centers, also called sleep clinics and sleep labs (laboratories).

Sleep medicine specialists diagnose and treat a number of sleep-related conditions, including excessive snoring, sleep apnea (obstructive sleep apnea; OSA), insomnia (inability to sleep or sleep well), narcolepsy (chronic, uncontrollable daytime sleepiness), and circadian rhythm disorders. Circadian rhythm sleep disorders, such as delayed sleep phase syndrome, jet lag, and shift work change, cause chronic (long term) or occasional disruptions in sleep patterns and may result in excessive sleepiness and/or difficulty sleeping.

Sleep specialists also diagnose and treat parasomnias, which are abnormal conditions or events that occur during sleep. These conditions include the following:

  • Bedwetting (nocturnal enuresis)
  • Nightmares (bad dreams) and night terrors (episodes of extreme fear)
  • Periodic limb movement disorder/Restless legs syndrome (PLMD/RLS)
  • REM behavior disorder (RBD)
  • Sleep paralysis (inability to move when falling asleep or awaking)
  • Sleepwalking (motor activity, such as walking, while asleep)
  • Teeth grinding (bruxism)

To diagnose sleep disorders, sleep medicine specialists conduct a clinical assessment and sleep evaluation. Diagnosis usually involves taking a complete family and personal medical history and performing a physical examination and laboratory tests. A sleep study, which may require an overnight stay in a sleep center, often is used to evaluate the patient’s wake-sleep cycle. Types of sleep studies include polysomnography, multiple sleep latency test (MSLT), maintenance of wakefulness test (MWT), and actigraphy.

Sleep specialists use a number of different methods to treat sleep disorders. Common sleep disorder treatments include medications, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP; used to treat sleep apnea), oral appliances (e.g., to prevent teeth grinding and open the airway during sleep), and therapy (e.g., bright light therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy; used to treat circadian rhythm disorders and to improve sleep habits). In some cases, surgery (e.g., palatal restoration [Pillar® procedure], uvulopalatopharneoplasty [UP3], tonsillectomy and adenoid removal) is performed.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 10 Aug 2009

Last Modified: 05 Dec 2011