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Sleep scientists help diagnose disorders

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Sleep scientists help diagnose disorders

"​I am paid to watch people sleep," jokes Yenuki Waduge.

Yenuki (pictured) is a Sleep Scientist in the Department of Respiratory and Sleep Disorders Medicine, which is based at Footscray Hospital. 

"In reality my role is a lot more complex than that," she says.

"Sleep scientists primarily diagnose patients with sleep disorders, and this involves monitoring and analysing patients while they sleep overnight, or, in some cases during the day." 

The most common disorder diagnosed in the Sleep Disorders Unit is obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), which occurs when the throat collapses and restricts air flow to the lungs, causing the person to stop breathing.  

This can happen hundreds of times each night and can have a detrimental impact on the person's health. 

It's estimated that five percent of the population are affected by OSA and around one in four men over the age of 30 years have some degree of the disorder. 

"We also see people with a range of problems including insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, loud snoring, narcolepsy and circadian rhythm disorders. 

Yenuki has a Bachelor of Science from Monash University, majoring in Physiology, and a Masters in Public Health from the University of Melbourne. 

One of the aspects that Yenuki enjoys most about her profession is analysing the sleep studies she conducts on patients in the Sleep Disorders Unit. 

"It's very time consuming because you must look at 30 second blocks of a person's sleep over the course of a whole night, so there can be around six hours of recording to go over," she said. 

"There is also lots of variety in my role, despite what you think, it's not just night work! 

"I love meeting patients from all walks of life, it's only a short time, but it's great getting to meet them and hopefully play a role in helping them to get better." 

Sleep scientists perform a range of tests that involve monitoring a patient's brainwaves to understand their sleep stages, and measuring eye, leg and jaw movements. 

"We also measure their heart rate and breathing because a lot of sleep disorders relate to breathing." 

There are aspects of Yenuki's role that can be quite confronting. 

"It can be quite scary when you are on night shift and you are monitoring a patient and they stop breathing for long periods of time, sometimes several times within a minute, and they are completely unaware of it. 

"It's quite dangerous and we see it a lot unfortunately." 

She still gets surprised by how quickly some people can fall asleep, particularly patients with narcolepsy. 

"Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that affects the brain's ability to control sleep-wake cycles.  

"They often experience interrupted and uneven sleep and feel very sleepy throughout the day." 

"Patients with narcolepsy often come in for day sleep studies and we ask them to have several naps throughout the day and these are timed for 15-20 minutes.  

"Sometimes the patient is asleep by the time I turn the light out and walk out of the room.  

"It's incredibly fast, but it's not good for their health and interferes with their lives." 

"It's rewarding to know that we are playing a small part in helping them get a diagnosis, which is the first step to managing their disorder." 

Find out more about sleep disorders on the Better Health Channel or Sleep Disorders Australia.