Sleep studies have grown to encompass a broad range of technologies employed to study and diagnose a variety of sleep disorders. From their inception in neurophysiology laboratories interested in investigating primary disorders of sleep architecture from psychiatric illness, their remit has widened such that their most common role is currently to diagnose secondary sleep disruption from respiratory, cardiovascular or other systemic causes. This review outlines the pathophysiology of obstructive sleep apnoea in particular and how sleep studies have improved our understanding of the complex dynamic changes in blood gas tensions, cardiovascular control and cerebral arousal that occur with these repetitive events. We review the historical development of standard laboratory-based sleep studies and discuss their limitations in staging sleep, reflecting the episodes of increased upper airway resistance that underlie these disorders and their ability to predict individuals' symptoms or response to medical or surgical therapies. We then describe some alternative signals that have been employed to monitor the physiological changes in upper airway resistance and arousal with a discussion of some of the evidence that these 'limited' studies may provide diagnostic information that can guide clinical decision making and may predict the outcome without the need, in some cases, for more complex and costly laboratory-based studies.