The science behind UBC's sleep clinic

The UBC hospital sleep clinic recently received increased funding which will be used to improve the facility — but what does a sleep clinic actually do?

An estimated 40 per cent of Canadians will experience a sleep disorder at some point in their lifetime. Sleep disorders vary from sleeping too much or too little, feeling sleepy throughout the day, to experiencing strange disturbances during sleep. Understanding why and how these disturbances occur is a critical step to finding a treatment. 

When it comes to diagnosing a sleep disorder, a patient's journey begins as that of most medical conditions — by recognizing there is a problem. This problem isn't always obviously related to poor sleep quality, but upon observation, a family physician may make a referral and into the care of the sleep clinic the patient goes. 

Certain conditions are easier to diagnose than others and while some patients can be diagnosed through a simple conversation, others need further examination. The clinic uses wearable technology in some cases, somewhat like a Fitbit. In other cases in-hospital, overnight observation is required. 

Diagnostic tests which Dr. John Fleetham, the director of the UBC Sleep Clinic, described as similar to having an X-ray or CT scan are frequently used. A variety of features may be monitored, including heart rate and rhythm, oxygen levels, breathing rates, brain waves, body position and even polygraph records. Patients are also videotaped while they sleep, in order to aid the detection of a disorder.

There are many disorders and depending on one’s diagnosis, a relevant treatment is then prescribed. One of the examples for the treatment of sleep apnea, a condition where patients momentarily stop breathing during their sleep, involves the use of a mask — commonly referred to as a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine — that prevents this break in one’s breathing.

Sleep disorders come in all shapes and forms, and because there is no single flavour-of-the-month treatment, each patient is dealt with very much on a case to case basis.