What on Earth is a 'Sleep Doctor'? And When Should You See One?

What on Earth is a 'Sleep Doctor'? And When Should You See One?

If you’ve ever had trouble sleeping, like one of the70 million Americans that suffer from chronic sleep problems, you might not have been sure where to turn. Enter, the enigmatic “sleep doctor. A “sleep doctor” is a fairly ambiguous umbrella term for a number of experts — from a variety of healthcare fields — trained to investigate peoples’ sleep problems and help them get better rest. 

“Sleep is that third post you need for good health, in addition to good nutrition and exercise,” says Dr. Fariha Abbasi-Feinberg, a sleep specialist based in Fort Myers, Florida. “Recently there’s been a resurgence of interest in sleep, and the workforce for sleep medicine is definitely growing.”

While Americans say they try to prioritize sleep, peran American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) survey, they aren’t that actually great at. 

“Unfortunately, most of us over time have developed poor sleep habits and skills,”  Abbasi-Feinberg says. “We want people to sleep well so they can live well.”

If you’re having sleep troubles, your first path of action should be heading to a sleep doctor. But what is a sleep doctor? And what exactly can they treat? We break it down below. 

A few decades ago, neurologists were the main types of doctors that specialized in sleep, says Dr. Aarti Grover,Medical Director of the Center for Sleep Medicineat Tufts Medical Center.

But over the years, as researchers have discovered more about how complex sleep is and how it impacts many bodily systems — from the nervous system to the endocrine system, and cardiovascular system — many types of doctors now specialize in treating sleep issues. 

Doctors train in their area of expertise, and then get certified as a sleep specialist. Neurologists, pulmonologists, psychiatrists, ear nose and throat doctors, and even cardiologists, can each do this.

Sleep doctors then have to get re-certified every 10 years by re-taking the board certification exam.Traditionally, doctors certified in sleep medicine do an additional year of training specifically in sleep training after medical school and their medical residency, Abbasi-Feinberg says. Most still do it that way. But the AASM is also currently testing a pilot program where doctors can combine their sleep medicine training with their specialty training.

In general, sleep training includes learning interview skills, understanding the different stages of sleep, and learning how to read sleep studies, whether they’re at home or in the lab.

If you’ve been especially tired or you regularly aren’t sleeping well and your primary care doctor can’t figure out why, then you might want to see a sleep doctor.

Grover says some of the most common reasons for someone to seek out a sleep doctor include snoring, feeling fatigued during the day, and not being able to concentrate. Other people might be gasping for air while they’re sleeping or have persistent issues falling and staying asleep. 

People who see a sleep doctor are typically referred by their primary care physician or their cardiologist, Abbasi-Feinberg says. But they don’t necessarily need a referral if their insurance plan doesn’t require one. 

You might see a sleep psychiatrist, if you have insomnia or racing thoughts that keep you up at night, or a pulmonologist, if your doctor suspects you have sleep apnea, which is when you’re not getting enough oxygen as you sleep. 

A visit with a sleep doctor often starts with an interview asking you about your sleep patterns and issues. To evaluate whether you might have a sleep disorder, the doctor could ask you to do a home or in-lab sleep study to evaluate your quality of sleep. 

Common sleep disorders include sleep apnea, insomnia and narcolepsy (excessive daytime sleepiness). The doctor’s goal will be to design a plan to improve your sleep. Sleep doctors often consult with a team of sleep technologists, who can administer sleep studies and sleep psychologists. They also might work with respiratory therapists, dentists who can fit people for appliances to treat breathing issues, and sleep surgeons — who can address structural issues in the body that might be getting in the way of good sleep.

Depending on your specific situation, a sleep doctor might prescribe medications, a medical device like a mouth guard or CPAP machine (a machine that helps keep your upper airway passages open as you sleep) for sleep apnea, or refer you to a cognitive behavioral therapist or a physical therapist. 

People tend to wait out sleep issues, adds Abbasi-Feinberg, thinking they’ll just get better on their own. But, “it’s always okay to ask for help,” she says.

Many sleep doctors work out of sleep centers or sleep clinics. These are often run by major medical centers. 

But sleep doctors also work in private practice and in group practices across the country.In the U.S., there are more than 2,600 AASM-accredited sleep centers in the U.S., and patients cancheck if a provider is board certified on their website.  

It’s not unusual for sleep doctors to be booked out for months, Abbasi-Feinberg says. Some specialists though will find ways to get people in sooner if sleep issues are significantly interfering with their day-to-day lives. For example, if the person is a bus driver and they’re getting drowsy during the day, they might try to get them in sooner. 

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