Sleep Doctors: When to See One and Where to Find Them

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A sleep doctor studies, diagnoses, and treats sleep health issues. They are also known as sleep specialists. The formal name for a sleep doctor is a somnologist. A sleep doctor can be a physician or psychologist with degrees, including MD, Ph.D., or DO. Sleep doctors can have backgrounds that include internal medicine, pulmonary medicine, psychiatry, pediatrics, and otorhinolaryngology. Sleep doctors help treat sleep disorders such as insomnia, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy, circadian rhythm disorders, and more.

After evaluating your symptoms, your primary care physician may recommend a sleep specialist for further examination. You should see a sleep doctor if sleep-related problems negatively affect your health and well-being. Sleep specialists may work in private practices, clinics, or hospitals. Sleep doctors can help people answer important questions like why they are so tired or how they can stop snoring.

What are Sleep Doctors?

Sleep doctors are healthcare providers that study, diagnose, and treat sleep-related issues. These issues can include sleep disorders, such as insomnia, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy, circadian rhythm disorders, and more. Sleep doctors can be ‌ physicians or psychologists with degrees that include MD, Ph.D., or DO. Physicians may treat sleep disorders through medicines, whereas psychologists treat sleep problems through therapy formats such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

What is a Sleep Doctor Called?

A sleep doctor is called a somnologist. The term somnologist is derived from the word ‘somnus,’ which means sleep. The term ‘somnology’ is known as the scientific study of sleep. Sleep doctors may also be referred to as sleep specialists.

What do Sleep Specialists Do?

Sleep specialists study, diagnose, and treat sleep-health issues. Sleep specialists are doctors who are either physicians or psychologists. Many have additional training in other fields, such as internal medicine, pulmonary medicine, psychiatry, pediatrics, and otorhinolaryngology. Physicians may treat sleep problems through medical means. Psychologists can treat sleep issues through therapy formats like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Both physicians and psychologists specializing in sleep may recommend lifestyle changes to treat these issues. A primary care physician may refer you to a sleep expert if they feel you need further evaluation regarding sleep-related problems.

Sleep specialists are trained in diagnosing sleep disorders. One way they diagnose disorders is by conducting a sleep study – or polysomnography. During a sleep study, the patient will sleep overnight at a clinic where they’ll be hooked up to monitors. The monitors will record the individual's brain and body activity overnight. The specialist will use this data to help assess if the patient has a sleep disorder.

Illustration of a Dream Experiment During the REM Sleep

What are the Types of Sleep Specialists?

The types of sleep specialists are listed below.

  1. Psychiatrists: Psychiatrists are medical doctors specializing in mental health disorders. They can also treat sleep problems because some sleep disorders are linked to mental health issues.

  2. Psychologists: Psychologists are mental health professionals who treat patients through therapy. Psychologists are not medical doctors and cannot prescribe sleep medication. Psychologists may treat sleep disorders through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

  3. Neurologists: Neurologists are medical doctors specializing in brain and nervous system diseases. Some sleep disorders are linked to neurological issues, which is where these doctors may ‌help.

  4. Pediatricians: Pediatricians are medical doctors for children. Pediatricians can help treat sleep disorders in kids and teens.

  5. Otorhinolaryngologists: Otorhinolaryngologists are medical doctors who specialize in ear, nose, and throat problems. Certain sleep disorders, such as insomnia and sleep apnea, can result from issues related to the nose and throat.

  6. Dentists: Dentists specialize in oral health. Dentists may help treat snoring and sleep apnea by providing patients with oral devices to ease their symptoms.

  7. Oral Surgeons: Oral surgeons provide surgeries for the face, mouth, and jaw. People may seek oral surgeons to help with sleep apnea through jaw surgery.

  8. Respiratory Therapists: A respiratory therapist is trained in treating problems related to breathing and the lungs. These therapists work under the direction of a doctor. Respiratory therapists may help with conditions like sleep apnea, which affects a person’s breathing during sleep.

When to See a Sleep Doctor

You should see a sleep doctor if your symptoms negatively affect your health and well-being regularly. You may first consult with your primary care physician, who will ask you questions about your symptoms and do an exam. If your primary doctor feels you need further examination, they may recommend you to a sleep specialist.

Illustration of a Tired Woman Suffering to Fall Asleep

What Sleep Disorder Requires a Medical Sleep Specialist?

Sleep disorders that can require a medical sleep specialist can include insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, restless legs syndrome, and more. One way to treat these sleep disorders is through medication such as sleeping pills. Sleep medicine is normally used as a temporary solution, so some patients may seek therapy for long-term treatment. An insomnia specialist may use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help with this common sleep disorder. Insomnia often accompanies other sleep disorders because they can cause the individual to have difficulty falling and staying asleep.

How to Find a Sleep Specialist

One way to find a sleep specialist is through a referral from your primary care physician. A benefit of finding a specialist through your regular doctor is that your doctor can recommend a particular specialist based on your symptoms. For example, if it appears your insomnia is linked to depression or anxiety, they may recommend you to a psychiatrist or psychologist. A second way to find a sleep specialist is by searching for accredited sleep centers in your area. You can find a sleep center through the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s website at sleepeducation.org. Before seeing a specialist, you may need to consider any potential out-of-pocket healthcare costs and if they’re available.

What Questions Should You Ask a Sleep Doctor?

The questions you should ask a sleep doctor are related to your symptoms, treatment, and the disorder. Examples of questions to ask a sleep doctor are listed below.

  • Why am I tired all the time?
  • Why do I have trouble falling asleep?
  • Why do I have trouble staying asleep?
  • Why do I keep waking up during the night?
  • Why do I feel the need to move my legs at night?
  • Why do I snore?
  • What can I do if my partner’s sleep is being impacted too?
  • What sleep disorder do I have?
  • What causes my sleep disorder?
  • How can I prevent dependence on sleeping pills?
  • Will sleeping pills affect other medications I’m taking?
  • Are there any other side effects to sleeping pills?
  • What are long-term treatment options?
Editor

Jill Zwarensteyn is the Editor for Sleep Advisor and a Certified Sleep Science Coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.

Based in Los Angeles, she is an experienced writer and journalist who enjoys spending her free time at the beach, hiking, reading, or exploring new places around town.

She’s also an avid traveler who has a personal goal of being able to successfully sleep on an airplane someday.

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