Sleep Disorder Articles, Research & Resources

Lisa A. Koosis
Last updated:
Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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What Is a Sleep Disorder?

Although specific sleep requirements vary by age, for most people, a normal night’s sleep consists of falling asleep easily, staying asleep for the entire night, and waking refreshed in the morning. (1) Sleep disorders are conditions that regularly interfere with the amount, timing, or overall quality of sleep.

Sleeping disorders fall into two categories:

  • Dyssomnia, which is characterized by trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Parasomnia, which is characterized by abnormal activities, such as nightmares, sleepwalking, or night terrors (2)

Common sleep disorders within those two categories include: (3)

  • Insomnia: Individuals with insomnia have trouble falling or staying asleep and often experience daytime sleepiness. They may have one or more short-term episodes of insomnia or struggle with persistent or recurring sleeplessness.
  • Nightmare disorder: People with nightmare disorder regularly experience long and disturbing dreams. This condition may begin in early childhood, but it’s most commonly diagnosed in adolescence or young adulthood.
  • Narcolepsy: Narcolepsy causes individuals to feel a strong urge to sleep at inappropriate or unexpected times. They may fall asleep multiple times a day.
  • Restless legs syndrome: Individuals with restless legs syndrome, also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, experience a compulsive need to move their legs. They may also have uncomfortable sensations, such as burning, tingling, or itching, in their legs, which may worsen at night or when they’re resting.
  • Sleep apnea: People diagnosed with sleep apnea have episodes of airway obstruction during sleep, leading to interrupted breathing, snoring, and gasping or snorting.

What Causes Sleep Disorders?

Sleep disorders have various causes, depending on the individual and the specific condition. However, several common factors can disrupt an individual’s natural cycle of sleep and wakefulness, including:

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  • Genetics: Some conditions, such as narcolepsy, may have a genetic component. Genetic syndromes, such as cleft palate, may also cause some types of sleep apnea. (4)
  • Aging: Sleep disorders are common in people over 65. This may be a normal part of aging or because of medications commonly taken by older adults. (5)
  • Environmental conditions: Noise, light, temperature, and other environmental factors play a prominent role in sleep-related wellness. Poor environmental conditions may negatively impact sleep. (6)
  • Work schedules: Overnight employment or irregular work schedules can interfere with an individual’s biological clock, potentially causing a sleep disorder. (7)
  • Medical conditions: Medical conditions are often linked to sleep disorders. For example, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), and obesity may cause sleep apnea. Medical conditions that cause pain can also interrupt sleep patterns. (8)
  • Psychiatric disorders: Anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and other mental health conditions may lead to sleep disorders. (9)
  • Prescription medications: Some medications, including steroids and diuretics, can interfere with the ability to sleep. (10)
  • Caffeine: Excessive use of caffeine can lead to sleep disturbances in some people. Effects may be worse if caffeine is consumed prior to bedtime. (11)
  • Pregnancy: Pregnant women often develop sleep disorders, such as insomnia, restless legs syndrome, and sleep apnea. (12)

What Are Symptoms of Sleep Disorders?

The signs of a sleeping disorder may be obvious, such as having trouble falling or staying asleep, and/or excessive sleepiness during the day. However, symptoms can vary depending on the type of disorder and the individual. Other common symptoms include: (13)

  • Chronic snoring
  • Abnormal breathing patterns during sleep
  • Choking episodes during sleep
  • Irregular patterns of sleeping and waking
  • Frequent nightmares or sleep terrors
  • Sleepwalking
  • Weight gain
  • Falling asleep at unusual or inappropriate times
  • Unusual or uncomfortable limb movements before or during sleep
  • The urge to move the legs prior to sleeping

Several medical conditions may also be indicative of an underlying sleep disorder, including: (14)

How Are Sleep Disorders Diagnosed?

If a physician suspects a sleep disorder, they may refer the patient to a sleep specialist, who is trained to evaluate sleep issues. The evaluation may involve:

  • A detailed medical history: This typically includes questions about overall health, symptoms, prescription and OTC medications, and sleep schedules.
  • A physical exam: During a physical exam, the doctor may check for nasal congestion, enlarged tonsils, a narrow airway, or a deviated septum.
  • Lab work: A doctor may order blood tests to check an individual's iron levels and thyroid function, or to do a drug screening.
  • A sleep journal: Patients may be asked to track sleep patterns and quality over a period of about 1 to 2 weeks.
  • A sleep study: Sleep studies may be done at home or in a clinical setting. Equipment may record crucial information, such as sleep stages, blood oxygen levels, eye movement, and brain waves.
  • Diagnostic tests: Physicians may order additional tests to determine an individual's sleepiness levels and their ability to stay awake during the day. (15)

After obtaining sufficient information, the physician may diagnose a sleep disorder and create a treatment plan.

What Is the Best Treatment for Sleep Disorders?

The best treatment for a sleeping disorder depends on the specific condition, its severity, and the individual's general health. Treatment options include:

  • Therapies: Several therapies may be prescribed to treat sleep disorders. Orofacial therapy, which exercises facial muscles, may help with sleep apnea. Light therapy, which exposes an individual to artificial light that mimics sunlight, can help reset the sleep-wake cycle in some people.
  • Medications: Over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids may help people who have trouble sleeping. However, many medications cause side effects and aren’t designed for long-term use.
  • Devices: Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines or oral devices that better-position the jaw and tongue to help keep an individual’s airways open may reduce episodes of sleep apnea.
  • Surgical procedures: Some surgical interventions, such as soft tissue removal from the throat and mouth, may make an individual’s airway bigger to facilitate nighttime breathing. (16)

How to Cope With a Sleep Disorder Diagnosis

Sleep and mental health are closely linked, and sleep problems can have a negative impact on your state of mind. (17) Individuals diagnosed with a sleep disorder may want to consider simple lifestyle changes to improve their quality of sleep. This may include:

  • Maintaining a regular sleep schedule
  • Avoiding naps
  • Reducing caffeine intake
  • Reducing beverage intake before bedtime
  • Creating a sleep-friendly bedroom

A trusted physician can provide advice on additional treatment options. Individuals who are experiencing emotional distress related to their diagnosis may find it helpful to consult a trained mental health counselor.

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