Imagine you wake up several times a night. You haven’t had a good night’s sleep in months. What would you do? You could go to see a doctor who specializes in sleep disorders. The doctor might then refer you to a sleep laboratory, where a sleep technologist would administer tests to analyze your sleeping patterns. On the basis of this analysis, the doctor would make a diagnosis that hopefully helps you get a good night’s sleep.
“We Live for REM”
Sleep technology is a relatively new fired with plenty of job opportunities. The first sleep lab was set up in 1976. Today, there are many sleep labs around the country and more are opening each year. In fact, there are fewer than 3,000 registered sleep technologists for the 40 million Americans with sleep disorders.
Sleep technologists study the sleep cycles of people with sleep disorders. One commonly studies sleep disorder is obstructive sleep apnea. Apnea is Greek for “no breath.”
Apnea is a disorder in which a sleeper actually stops breathing for a short period of time,” says Kelly Million, president of the Association of Polysomnographic (or sleep) Technologists. “The good news is we can treat the condition. We can even have an overnight turnaround. For a person who’s been waking up hundreds of times a night for 20 years, this brings relief. Under our care, that person will be sleeping like a baby.”
Seeing such an immediate change in a patient is one of the more rewarding aspects of the job. Theresa Shumard is a sleep technologist at the Lynn Health Science Institute Sleep Laboratory in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma She says, “I haven’t met one of my co-workers who wasn’t completely thrilled by our field. I remember the awe I felt the first time I studied a patient having rapid eye movement (REM) sleep–a dream state. It’s intriguing,” she says. “We live for REM!”
A Night in the Life…
Depending on whether a sleep technologist works the day, afternoon, or overnight shift, the job will vary. “Most patients sleep at night. That’s why there is more patient interaction on midnight shifts,” Pam Minkley, a sleep technologist who works in Lansing, Michigan, says. “However, some tests are done during the day and evening. And with more shift workers, we are seeing more day sleepers now.”
What’s a typical night in the life of a sleep technologist? Technologists may begin by applying sensitive equipment to the patient. The technologist monitors the patient’s sleep, breathing, body movements, oxygen level, brain waves, and heart activity. Both Minkley and Shumard stress the importance of educating the patient about the tests and treatments. Shumard also emphasizes the importance of making patients aware of “good sleep health. We suggest peaceful thoughts,” Shumard says. “We tell the patient to relax the muscles of the trunk, neck, and limbs.”
While the patient is sleeping, the sleep technologist observes on video his or her sleeping positions. If a patient needs to get up during the night, the technologist assists.
Day technologists will often score a patient’s results from the night before. They analyze the data, noting the sleep stages. They mark and count body movements and breathing incidents. Physicians interpret the data and make a diagnosis of a sleep disorder if one is present.
The Mystery of Falling Asleep
Sleep technologists talk about how much fun they have doing their job. Many find it exciting to be on the cutting edge of a new field that holds so much mystery and promise. After all, there is still so much to learn about what happens during sleep.
Million says, “The one thing we know is that when we get enough sleep, we feel refreshed. We are still trying to figure out what the function of sleep is and why we need it.” Shumard believes, “We must stop thinking of sleep as an inactive state.” Plenty of brain activity goes on during sleep.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults need about eight hours of sleep a night. Most people don’t get that much. “We are very poor judges of how sleepy we are,” Minkley says. “Most of us would function better if we got enough sleep.” The way we feel while we’re awake depends upon how well we sleep. And how well we sleep depends upon what we do while we’re awake, says the National School of Sleep Medicine.
Technologists could be part of the process of new discovery in this field. Shumard says, “There are approximately 80 defined sleep disorders to date. All have unique and amazing characteristics and symptoms. Other disorders have yet to be defined and classified.”
Some sleep professionals work in areas other than a clinical setting. They can manage or market sleep centers. They can promote and sell sleep products. Others can educate patients and the public about sleep disorders and relaxation techniques.
How to Become a Sleep Technologist
A four-year degree is desirable. To get started in the field, however, a person needs an associated degree in any health field. In some cases, techs may obtain on-the-job training with only a high school diploma. “There also are seminars and courses that the Association of Polysomnographic Technologists holds,” Million says.
Only a few colleges and universities offer classes or degrees in this field, but students with good math and science skills will have a head start in this career. College graduates with biology and psychology degrees often find this education helpful. In addition, it’s important to have a basic understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the body.
New Frontiers in Sleep Medicine
Do you think you would enjoy exploring the mystery of why we sleep? Do you have an aptitude for math and science? If so, then consider a career as a sleep technologist. You could enter a rapidly expanding health care field with excellent job opportunities.