How Do Sleep Tracking Apps and Devices Work?

Technology may help you better understand your sleeping patterns.

How well did you sleep last night? The answer could mean the difference between a great day and an uncomfortable one for a headache or migraine sufferers, as poor sleep triggers headaches in some.

The recent boom of sleep tracking devices and smartphone apps that are designed to help you better understand your sleeping patterns might have piqued your interest if you suspect lack of shut-eye may be contributing to your head pain. We spoke to a sleep researcher to help better understand how these work — and how they could possibly help you.

How Do Sleep Trackers Work?

When sleeping, most people enter a sort of temporary, functional paralysis, which prohibits them from moving, says sleep researcher Hawley Montgomery-Downs, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology and Coordinator for the Behavioral Neuroscience Training Program at West Virginia University. Therefore, during sleep hours, movement can be interpreted as wakefulness, the tracking of which is called actigraphy.
Sleep-tracking technology uses this method to detect when you’re asleep, awake, or restless. Actigraphy can give objective information on sleep habits and has been authenticated for estimation of sleep patterns. 1

What’s the Deal With Sleep-Tracking Apps?

Smartphone sleep apps claim to measure your body’s movements using the phone’s accelerometer to track restlessness during the night. It’s easy enough – download one of these apps, then put your phone facedown next to you while sleeping. Many of these apps will provide you with a report of how many times you woke up and what times during the night you were active. However, as Montgomery-Downs notes, it’s important to remember that the devices currently on the market can’t truly identify when you’re sleeping or awake. It’s important to talk to your doctor if you feel you have a sleep disorder, such as insomnia.
Alternatively, sleep tracking devices can be worn on the wrist or clipped to your PJs during the night, using built-in accelerometers and software to track your sleep patterns over time. These devices may also be more accurate than apps, since they reduce the chance that movement by a pet or bedmate is registered.

What Else Should I Know?

If you think that lack of sleep or irregular sleep patterns could be a migraine or headache trigger for you, consider keeping a headache diary. A sleep tracker could be a good tool to use as part of your headache or migraine diary.
 
Montgomery-Downs does warn that people with sleep apnea, in which breathing periodically stops and starts, may not find consumer sleep trackers particularly useful. While sleep apnea causes people to wake up frequently, it rarely causes movement, she says.
 
If you believe you may suffer from sleep apnea or any other sleep disorder, talk to your doctor about receiving a professional sleep evaluation. But if you’re simply curious about your personal sleeping patterns, a sleep-tracker could be helpful.

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1. Martin JL, Hakim AD. Wrist actigraphy. Chest. 2011 Jun;139(6):1514-27. doi: 10.1378/chest.10-1872. Review. PubMed PMID: 21652563; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3109647. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21652563

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