Health 101: What Is Sleep Medicine?

man unable to sleep

An individual with difficulty sleeping, remaining asleep, or with anything related to sleep look to their primary care physicians for assistance. However, some doctors specialize in addressing patients’ problems with their sleep.

Who are these specialists?

They are called sleep medicine specialists. They are not labeled as sleep doctors because “sleep medicine” is not a distinct and stand-alone branch of medicine. It is a subspecialty of family doctors, internal medicine practitioners, psychiatrists, pediatricians, neurologists, and otolaryngologists.

Doctors in the fields may choose to study sleep medicine, earn certification, and practice the subspecialty along with their main specialization.

Why is sleep medicine a subspecialty instead of a distinct one?

The practice of sleep medicine is not a sole specialty because many health factors contribute to patients’ sleep problems. The subspecialty is practiced along with other main fields of medicine because of its broad reach. An individual can report having problems with sleeping, but their primary care physician will need more information and if they cannot address the issue because it is out of their practice, they will recommend patients to consult other physicians that practice sleep medicine along with their main specialization.

For example, a patient reports that they are having trouble staying asleep or have high frequencies of their sleep being disturbed. The primary care physician will delve deeper by asking what is keeping the patient up. If the patient answers that they are having breathing difficulties, the primary care physician will suggest a visit to the otolaryngologist. This is the case especially if the patient reports that they snore during sleep.

Another example is when a patient reports a problem with sleeping and supplements the report with information about their mental health. The primary care physician will then recommend a psychiatrist with sleep medicine as one of their subspecialties to address the patient’s health concerns carefully and properly.

Sleep medicine’s role as a subspecialty is beneficial to physicians and patients because both can address problems with sleeping patterns, sleeping rhythms, and what are the health factors contributing to reported issues while being specific. This will help in making the curative process quicker, avoiding long-term problems that may be dangerous to the patient’s well-being.

When should a patient seek medical attention for sleep issues?

Problem sleepingAccording to the Harvard Medical School’s Sleep Medicine Division, even though most problems with sleeping can be dealt with by changes in a patient’s routine or within the environment they sleep in, there are times that behavioral changes initiated by the patient do not help in the elimination of their sleep problems.

A patient should seek medical attention once the sleep issues they are experiencing start to interfere with their daily tasks. This includes the inability to stay awake when they should, inability to sleep during nighttime, and when they wake up more times than they stay asleep at night.

It is difficult for a patient to identify which doctor to consult with, but their first choice should be their primary physician. They should be able to supplement their primary care doctors with the specifics of their sleep issues. As mentioned, these physicians will direct them to the right sleep medicine specialists that can efficiently address their sleep problems.

What do sleep medicine practitioners do to help patients?

Sleep medicine specialists are trained to possess knowledge of sleep-wake physiology. These include how neural systems control the said process. Their main specializations will allow them to address culprits of sleep problems that can be cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, immune system, etc.

According to the previously cited American Medical Association, sleep medicine specialists treat sleep-related disorders using devices, surgical procedures, medication, and behavioral intervention. Their diagnostic tools are sleep questionnaires, non-invasive monitoring of sleep and wake cycles, recording of brain waves, the oxygen level in the blood, heart rate and breathing, eye movement, and body movements during sleep.

Is the practice of sleep medicine safe?

Non-invasive curative procedures are guaranteed safe because they do not need patients to undergo procedures that come with their own risks. However, sleep problems, if needed, are treated through surgical procedures. They are safe, especially when done and cared for well, but like every other medical procedure that requires a patient to go under the knife, they come with risks.

Sleep specialists are trained to practice sleep medicine along with their main fields of specialization. This fact gives them adequate knowledge and experience in treating problems with sleep issues. A multitude of health problems can affect the quality of an individual’s sleep, and doctors who practice sleep medicine are trained to address the specifics and produce solutions.

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