What Is a Sleep Specialist and When Should I See One?

Published December 21st, 2021 by Erik Rivera
Fact Checked by
Jacqueline Hensler
Medically Reviewed:
Dr. Angel Rivera

Sleep specialist | When should I see a sleep specialist | How do I find a sleep doctor | Different Sleep doctors | Common sleep disorders

The medical field is always changing and evolving and with sleep being such an important factor in our lives, it's no surprise that doctors who specialize in sleep have become more popular in recent years. These are simply doctors who specialize in the treatment of sleep disorders. In this article, we'll answer all of your questions about sleeping doctors, also called sleep specialists, from what they do to when you should see one. We've also included information on finding a sleep specialist, as well as the types of questions you should ask your sleep doctor so you can get the best sleep possible.

What is a sleep specialist?

A sleep specialist is a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of sleeping disorders. Sleep specialists may be generalists or they may specialize in particular types of sleeping disorders. To become a sleep specialist, doctors must complete a residency in neurology, internal medicine, or a couple of other fields and then complete additional training in sleep medicine in a fellowship program. All sleep physicians receive a certification from the Board of Sleep Medicine.

Not all sleep doctors have to be medical doctors though as sleep psychologists can also help you with getting more quality sleep. They are sleep specialists who help with mental problems or behaviors that keep you from sleep. ENT doctors also called ear, nose, and throat doctors or otolaryngologists, can also help with sleep issues as they can assist with breathing issues, such as disrupted breathing patterns, that usually pertain to snoring or obstructive sleep apnea, which is also abbreviated as OSA.

When should I see a sleep specialist?

There is no one answer to this question, as the timing will vary depending on your symptoms and situation. However, if you have a sleeping disorder you should generally seek medical help if your sleep problems are causing distress or impacting your daily life on a regular basis. If you are having trouble getting asleep or staying asleep or if you are gasping in your sleep, snoring loudly, or feeling excessively tired during the day and have daytime sleepiness, you should consult a sleep specialist.

How do I find a sleep specialist?

There are several ways to find a sleep specialist. You can ask your family doctor for a referral, search online directories of sleeping disorder specialists and browse various websites for a list of certified sleep specialists in your area. You can always visit a sleep center too, as they also have sleep specialists on staff that usually only study sleep disorders. To get a list of accredited sleep specialists you can check the list at the American Association of Sleep Medicine, or AASM, to see the specialists in your area.

Are there different types of sleep specialists?

Yes, there are several types of sleep specialists. The most common type is the generalist sleep specialist who is trained to diagnose and treat all sleeping disorders. However, there are also subspecialists who specialize in particular types of sleeping disorders. For example, sleep neurologists are medical doctors who specialize in sleeping disorders that have to do with the brain or nervous system. Another type of specialist is a pulmonologist, which is someone who specializes in treating breathing problems while sleeping and another one is an otolaryngologist, an ear, nose, and throat doctor also known as an ENT.  Dentists and oral maxillofacial surgeons who specialize in sleeping problems related to the teeth, jaw, and mouth can also help patients with sleep disorders. Pediatricians help children with sleep disorders, while geriatricians work with the elderly who have sleeping problems. Respiratory therapists can also help people if they are having breathing problems with their sleeping disorders. Lastly, there are psychiatrists and psychologists who are sleep specialists that help people with sleeping disorders related to mental or emotional problems. This list of sleeping disorder specialists is not all-inclusive as there are other types of specialists, but this group makes up a good portion of sleeping experts out there.

What are the common sleep disorders that sleep specialists treat?

There are different types of sleeping disorders, but some common examples include insomnia, which is difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, and snoring, which is another sleeping disorder that sleep specialists can help with.

Other sleeping problems that sleep specialists treat are: 

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
  • Nonrestorative sleep disorder, where people don't feel rested even after sleeping for a long time and it feels like they haven't slept at all.
  • Circadian rhythm sleep disorder, which are sleeping problems related to the body's natural daily cycle.
  • Nightmare disorder where people have frequent unpleasant dreams that cause them distress or impairment of their life.
  • Restless leg syndrome is another disorder that is characterized by a strong desire to move one's legs and unpleasant sensations in the leg muscles.
  • Narcolepsy is a sleeping disorder that is characterized by sleep attacks that come on suddenly.
  • Sleep paralysis is a disorder where the person temporarily experiences an inability to move or speak when falling asleep or waking up.
  • Parasomnias: The last sleeping disorder mentioned here is called parasomnias and it's a group of other sleeping disorders including bed-wetting, also called enuresis, nightmare disorder, sleep talking, sleepwalking, and sleep terrors which are also called night terrors.

How do doctors diagnose sleep disorders?

Doctors can diagnose sleeping disorders with a sleep study which is also called polysomnography. In this test, the sleeping specialist takes you to a sleep lab where they record your brain waves, heart rate and rhythm, oxygen levels in the blood, as well as eye movement using small sensors that are put on your head or face. Another method doctors use to diagnose sleep disorders is asking you to complete a sleep diary where you document what sleeping times and sleeping conditions are like for about two weeks.

What treatments are there for sleep disorders?

There are sleeping disorder treatments that can help people get back to sleeping well again. The first option is behavioral therapy where the sleep specialist will give you instructions on what to do during the day and night, like taking naps in order for your body clock to get adjusted correctly. Another treatment option is phototherapy which uses light exposure at specific times of the day to help people with sleeping disorders. There are also medications that sleep specialists can prescribe for sleeping problems, like antidepressants which have been shown to be effective in treating insomnia. CPAP therapy is a treatment for sleep apnea where patients wear a mask during sleep that provides positive air pressure which helps keep the airways open. Finally, surgery is another treatment option that sleep specialists may recommend for people with severe obstructive sleep apnea.

What are some alternatives to sleep specialists?

There are some alternatives to sleeping specialists that you can try if you're not comfortable with seeing a doctor. Yoga and meditation may provide some relief from sleep disorders for some people. Stress reduction in general, which also ties back to yoga and meditation, is another alternative because sleeping problems can be caused by stress and anxiety. Reducing your stress levels might solve the problem altogether. Exercise also helps to reduce sleeping disorder symptoms, which means you should include exercise in your daily life as often as possible.

Finally, there are supplements for sleep like melatonin that you can try. However, it's important to consult with your doctor before taking any sleeping supplements because they might interact with other medications you're taking. Online programs are offered at various sites to help people with sleeping problems. There are also books and articles about sleeping disorders that you can read to learn more about them.

Summary

Sleep problems come in many forms and affect millions of people daily. If you are experiencing sleep problems, you should see a sleep specialist when it starts to affect your daily life on a regular basis. To find a sleep specialist, ask your doctor or healthcare provider and you can also look at the myriad of resources online. There are different sleep specialists in different fields, depending on your problem, this will determine which doctor you will see. There are sleeping disorder treatments like behavioral therapy, phototherapy, and medication. Sleeping disorders can also be treated with surgery while sleeping supplements may also help. Doctors use a sleep study to diagnose sleep disorders and you can try online programs or books if you don't want to see a sleeping specialist. If you have any more questions please talk to your doctor or health care provider for specialists near you who can treat your problems.

References and Sources: 

Advanced Sleep Medicine Services 

American Sleep Association 

U.S. News & World Report 

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