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Is your smartwatch as good as a home sleep test?

Many of us use technology to help us track and manage our sleep patterns. It’s not hard to see why – it can help detect problems and diagnose sleep disorders. But they are not all the same. There are many options for sleep tracking and testing. Many devices even look alike, leading to confusion as to which one you should invest in.

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

What is a home sleep test?

Before comparing the two devices, let’s define what a home sleep test is. 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 nasal cannulas. 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 probably have sleep apnea and just needs to confirm it, a home sleep test is a good option. They are only suitable for people with a high likelihood of sleep apnea and no other medical conditions that may interfere with the results.

Home sleep tests and smartwatches are different

The two devices are not the same thing, nor are they meant to be. However, when you compare home sleep tests with smartwatches or sleep trackers, you’ll notice a lot of overlap, especially in what they measure while you’re wearing them.

Home sleep tests and sleep trackers both measure the following:

  • Breathing – pauses and interruptions that indicate sleep apnea
  • Heartbeat
  • Blood oxygen levels

Both will also result in documentation that you can access to see the results of your sleep data. Although the use of this data is another difference. Home sleep tests diagnose sleep apnea, while smartwatches track your sleep. Let’s see how they are different.

Smartwatches measure more than breathing

Despite their name, home sleep tests won’t tell you anything about how well you sleep. They measure breathing, not the quality or type of sleep you get. They are really only useful in determining if you have sleep apnea.

If you are 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 stages
  • How many times do you wake up during the night

Sleep trackers and smartwatches also have apps to monitor your sleep data. For example, I have a Fitbit Luxury. In the Fitbit app, I can access graphs that show my sleep quality daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. It also tells me how often I’m awake and what time during my sleep cycles. This is key to making sure I balance the right amount of sleep at each stage. And helps me make the connection between what I do during the day and its impact on my sleep.

Home sleep tests also contain data that a doctor will help you interpret, but they are not devices intended for long-term wear. You will therefore never have the catalog of data that you would have with a watch.

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

carlofranco/Getty Images

Only home sleep tests can diagnose sleep apnea

The main difference between the two devices is that home sleep tests are medical devices that require you to speak with a doctor before purchasing and using them. Indeed, the most important purpose of a home sleep test is to diagnose sleep apnea. If you do not have the signs of sleep apnea (interrupted breathing, snoring, and excessive daytime fatigue), you should not use a home sleep test.

Your smartwatch will never diagnose sleep apnea. The best it can do is help you monitor your sleep disturbances and gauge how long you stay in each sleep phase. You may evaluate your data and notice themes that point to sleep disturbances, but these are not medical devices. They are great for people who want to monitor their sleep health and make changes if needed.

Nothing beats a lab sleep study

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

There’s a lot to consider about sleep lab studies — they’re expensive, often impractical, and can take months to set up. However, you can’t beat their accuracy. I would only recommend a lab sleep test if you need to diagnose sleep disorders and seek help.

Too long; did not read?

For the average person not 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 home sleep tests if you have signs of sleep apnea and need a diagnosis, which your smartwatch can’t. It tracks your breathing and may suggest something that needs to be investigated, although further testing is still needed to confirm.


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