How Close Is Your Smartwatch to an Actual Sleep Test? How Close Is Your Smartwatch to an Actual Sleep Test?
For times when we’re not sleeping as well as we could, we often turn to tech to help us solve the issue. There are... How Close Is Your Smartwatch to an Actual Sleep Test?

For times when we’re not sleeping as well as we could, we often turn to tech to help us solve the issue. There are a lot of options out there for sleep tracking and testing. Many devices even look the same, leading to confusion about which one you should invest in. 

Watches and at-home sleep tests are often confused because they’re used at home. It’s understandable but potentially bad for your wallet. Several substantial differences between the two will determine which you should buy. 

What is an at-home sleep test?

Before comparing the two devices, let’s define what an at-home sleep test is. At-home sleep tests are easy-to-use medical devices prescribed by a doctor and used to diagnose sleep apnea. There are several types on the market; some are simple finger clips, while others have chest straps or nose cannulas. At-home sleep tests are a more affordable and accessible alternative to traditional sleep studies. 

However, they are not used to diagnose other sleep disorders like insomnia or narcolepsy. But if your doctor suspects you likely have sleep apnea and just needs to confirm, an at-home sleep test is a good option. They are suited only for people with a high probability of sleep apnea and no other medical conditions that may interfere with results. 

At-home sleep tests and smartwatches are different

The two devices aren’t the same thing, nor are they intended to be. However, when comparing at-home sleep tests with smartwatches or sleep trackers, you’ll notice a lot of overlap, namely in what they measure while you wear them.

At-home sleep tests and sleep trackers both measure the following:

  • Breathing — pauses and interruptions that indicate sleep apnea
  • Heart rate
  • Blood oxygen levels

Both also will result in documentation you can access to see the results of your sleep data. Though the use of that data is another difference. At-home sleep tests diagnose sleep apnea, while smartwatches track how you sleep. Let’s get into how else they’re different. 

Smartwatches measure more than just breathing

Despite the name, at-home sleep tests won’t tell you anything about how you are sleeping. They measure breathing, not the quality or type of sleep you get. They’re really only good for determining if you have sleep apnea

If you’re looking for a device that can help you track your sleep and adjust your lifestyle, then you are best suited for a sleep tracker or smartwatch. 

Smartwatches and sleep trackers measure:

  • The amount of sleep you get
  • The quality of sleep you get
  • Your sleep phases
  • How often you wake up during the night

Sleep trackers and smartwatches also have apps to monitor your sleep data. For example, I have a Fitbit Luxe. In the Fitbit app, I can access graphs that tell my sleep quality daily, weekly, monthly and yearly. It also tells me how often I am awake and at what time during my sleep cycles. This is essential to ensuring I balance the proper amount of sleep in each stage. And helps me connect the dots between what I do during the day and how it impacts my sleep. 

At-home sleep tests also have data that a doctor will help you interpret, but they are not devices that are intended to wear long term. So you will never have the catalog of data you would have with a watch. 

Man sleeping with a sleep apnea diagnostic device on finger and wrist.

carlofranco/Getty Images

Only at-home sleep tests can diagnose sleep apnea

The main difference between the two devices is that at-home sleep tests are medical devices that require you to speak to a doctor before buying and using them. That’s because an at-home sleep test’s single most important purpose is to diagnose sleep apnea. If you don’t have the signs of sleep apnea — interrupted breathing, snoring and excessive daytime fatigue — then you should not use an at-home sleep test. 

Your smartwatch is never going to diagnose sleep apnea. The best it can do is help you monitor your sleep disturbances and assess how long you stay in each sleep stage. You can assess your data and notice themes that point to sleep disorders, but they are not medical devices. They’re great for people who want to monitor their sleep health and make changes if necessary.  

Nothing beats a lab sleep study

Watches that track your sleep are the best choice for the everyday person. However, if you are having prolonged sleep troubles, then medical intervention is necessary. Sometimes that is an at-home sleep test to diagnose sleep apnea. But in terms of performance, tracking the most factors, and having the best interpretation, nothing will be as good as lab sleep studies with a doctor. At-home sleep tests and sleep trackers are very limited in comparison. 

There are plenty of things to consider about lab sleep studies — they are expensive, often inconvenient and can take months to get into. However, you can’t beat the accuracy of them. I would only recommend a lab sleep test if you need to diagnose sleep disorders and seek assistance. 

Too long; didn’t read?

For the average person who isn’t looking to diagnose sleep apnea or other medical conditions, your smartwatch or sleep tracker is the best option. It will offer you a ton of information to help you monitor your sleep and adjust your lifestyle as needed. 

Your doctor will recommend at-home sleep tests if you show signs of sleep apnea and need a diagnosis, which is something your smartwatch can’t do. It does track your breathing and can suggest something that needs looking into, though additional testing will always be needed to confirm. 

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