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    Sleep Disorders: Ultimate Guide

    Sleep disorders affect around 50 to 70 million people in the United States alone, and there are about 80 different kinds. Sadly, about one-third of all Americans are not getting the proper amount of sleep they need on a regular basis.

    We’ve created a guide to help you understand the different types of sleep disorders and what you should do if you suspect you might have one.

    What Are Sleep Disorders?

    Sleep disorders are defined as certain types of problems that can impact someone’s quality of sleep, the time they fall asleep, and how long they’re able to sleep for.

    Most Common Sleep Disorders

    There are about 80 different types of sleep disorders, some more common than others. Here are some of the ones seen most frequently.


    Insomnia is when someone has difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep. Individuals with this sleep disorder generally feel fatigued, have trouble concentrating, have mood disturbances, and they might see a negative impact on their performance at school or work.

    Acute, or short-term insomnia is when it only lasts for a short duration, and it generally only occurs when there’s something going on in life that could add stress. Most of the time acute insomnia goes away quickly on its own.

    Chronic insomnia is when your sleep is disrupted at least three nights a week and lasts for more than three months. There are many things that can cause chronic insomnia, such as environmental changes, unhealthy sleeping habits, and certain medications.

    Individuals with this type of insomnia can benefit from treatment to get sufficient sleep.

    Restless Leg Syndrome

    Restless leg syndrome is also commonly referred to as RLS, and it causes people to have uncomfortable feelings in their legs, such as an urge to move them. RLS is considered a sleep disorder because it is something that does cause sleep disturbances.

    RLS can range in severity among individuals, and it can come and go.

    Sleep Apnea

    Sleep apnea is when an individual’s breathing becomes interrupted while they’re sleeping. People with this condition who leave it untreated can have periods during their sleep where they stop breathing many times. Sleep apnea can cause the brain to not get enough oxygen.

    Sleep apnea is categorized into two types:

    Obstructive sleep apnea: This is the most common form and is usually caused when there is a blockage in the airway, such as when tissue in the back of the throat collapses.

    Central sleep apnea: With this type, there is no blockage of the airway, but the brain does not send a signal to the muscles when it’s time to breathe. This can be caused by an instability in the respiratory control center.

    Sleep Terrors

    Sleep terrors, or night terrors, can be categorized by a variety of behaviors while asleep, such as screaming, flailing, and intense fear. In many cases, this can be paired with sleepwalking.

    Periods can last from just a few seconds to several minutes, with episodes that can last even longer. These are most common in young children.

    Sleep terrors are different than nightmares because individuals stay asleep during their dreams and do not remember details of them when they wake up. This sleep disorder can be a cause for concern if they’re becoming more frequent, lead to safety concerns, result in lack of sleep, or continue into the teen years.


    Bruxism is another word for teeth grinding, and it’s when individuals grind and/or clench their teeth while they’re sleeping. This condition can be linked to another sleep disorder such as sleep apnea and snoring.

    While bruxism doesn’t require treatment most of the time, it can lead to complications such as damaged teeth, headaches, and jaw disorders.


    Sleepwalking occurs when individuals perform complex behaviors while they’re in deep sleep, and it’s more common in children than adults. Sleepwalkers don’t always get up and walk around, but they can sit up in bed, turn their heads and look around, and even get in a car and drive.

    Certain things can trigger sleepwalking episodes such as sedative agents like alcohol, sleep deprivation, and certain medications. Despite the misconception that it’s dangerous to wake up a person who is sleepwalking, it’s dangerous not to wake them up since they could harm themselves or someone else.


    This sleep disorder affects 1 in 2,000 people and is categorized by excessive sleepiness, sleep paralysis, and hallucinations. It can also cause cataplexy, which is a partial or total loss of muscle control.

    Individuals with narcolepsy can involuntarily fall asleep while they’re performing normal activities. This condition is caused when there is a loss of the chemical hypocretin, which is what alerts the brain to keep us awake.

    Symptoms of Sleep Disorders

    Since there are a variety of sleep disorders that can affect individuals, the symptoms will vary. The most common symptoms to look for include:

    • Feeling tired throughout the day
    • Difficulty falling asleep at night
    • Breathing in unusual patterns
    • Urges to move that can keep you awake
    • General lack of energy
    • Mood and behavior disturbances
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • Sleep paralysis
    • Hallucinations
    • Disturbance in nocturnal sleep

    If you think you might have a sleep disorder, you should consult with your primary physician and let them know what symptoms you’re experiencing.

    What Can Cause Sleep Disorders?

    There are many factors that can lead to sleep disorders, and the most common include those that are physical, psychiatric, environmental, and medical.

    Short-term insomnia can be brought on by a number of things, including stressful changes in life. This can include loss of a job, death of a loved one, having a falling out with a friend, or a big assignment at school.

    Long-term insomnia is defined as problematic sleeping at least three times a week. This can be caused by depression, pain, or chronic stress.

    Genetics also play a role in sleep disorders, especially narcolepsy. Working at night can also have an impact on the quality of sleep you get, especially because individuals working at night cannot sleep when they begin to feel drowsy.

    Medications and aging also play a part in sleep disorders as well.

    Risks and Dangers of Sleep Disorders

    Not getting enough sleep can do more than just make you feel tired the next day. Lack of proper sleep can cause accidents, especially when you get behind the wheel when you can barely keep your eyes open.

    According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving was the cause of around 100,000 automobile accidents in the United States, resulting in 795 fatalities in 2017.

    Lack of sleep can also negatively impact your cognitive function, making you less alert, impairing your attention and alertness, decreasing your ability to reason and problem solve, and making it difficult for you to learn properly.

    If you have a chronic sleep disorder and never seem to get enough sleep, you can be at risk of serious health complications such as

    • High blood pressure
    • Heart disease
    • Heart attack
    • Heart failure
    • Irregular heartbeat
    • Stroke
    • Diabetes

    Identifying and Diagnosing Sleep Disorders

    Sometimes all it takes is telling your doctor your symptoms to lead to a proper diagnosis. In other cases, certain testing is needed.

    A sleep specialist may require you to undergo a sleep study, or polysomnography, especially if they’re trying to see if you have sleep apnea. This study can help identify any problems you may have and how serious they may be.

    Other tests that may be used to identify and diagnose sleep disorders include:

    • Titration study
    • Multiple sleep latency testing (MSLT)
    • Actigraphy
    • Home study

    When Should You Seek Help for Sleep Problems?

    Some sleep disorders go away on their own with just some lifestyle changes and better sleeping habits. Some do require medical intervention because they may lead to serious problems if they’re left untreated.

    You might want to seek help if:

    • You fall asleep while driving
    • You’re told constantly that you look tired
    • You feel like you have to take naps every day
    • Your responses are delayed
    • You have poor performance at school or work
    • Your memory isn’t that great
    • It’s hard for you to control your emotions
    • You can’t seem to stay awake when you’re inactive, such as when you’re watching television or reading

    Treatments for Sleep Disorders

    Sleep disorders can come in many forms, resulting in different treatment options. Sometimes, a doctor may end up treating underlying issues that lead to the problems with sleeping, such as anxiety and depression.

    There are certain sleep medications a doctor may prescribe, but they’re typically used on a short-term basis because it’s easy to become dependent on them.

    If you have sleep apnea, you might benefit from CPAP therapy, or Continuous Positive Airway Pressure Therapy. This requires individuals to wear a mask attached to a machine all night.

    This machine pumps mild air into the mask, ensuring the brain gets enough oxygen at night.

    Cognitive therapy is another option for treatment because it’s designed to help individuals identify inappropriate thoughts that may be causing the sleep concerns. It can help individuals set realistic goals, understand age-related sleep changes, and how naps and exercise can influence sleep.

    Self-Help for Sleep Disorders

    There are some things you can try yourself to try and improve your quality of sleep.

    Developing a bedtime routine that helps you relax

    You’ll want to find ways to prepare your body for sleep, so try to find a routine that you can stick to daily. Turn your bedroom into a place that promotes relaxation with dimmed lighting and very little noise.

    You can sip on soothing teas, such as chamomile, to reduce anxiety. Taking a warm bath before bed can also help you relax.

    Stick to a consistent schedule during the day

    Developing a strict schedule of things you do each day can help your body know when it’s time to go to sleep and when it’s awake time. Try to do the same things around the same time each day if possible.

    Exercise early

    Exercising is a great way to reduce stress and can help improve your quality of sleep. You’ll want to schedule your workout sessions early on in the day, especially if they’re intense.

    It’s ideal to get your gym time in at least three hours before you plan on going to sleep.

    Other things you can try are:

    • Avoiding beverages after 8 pm
    • Avoiding naps
    • Minimize noise and light during sleep hours
    • Avoid television and other screens before bed
    • Avoid drinking caffeine four to six hours before bed
    • Avoid eating heavy meals close to bedtime

    Tracking Your Symptoms

    If you suspect you might have a sleep disorder, the first step you want to take is to begin tracking your symptoms. This will help you record your sleep patterns, which could be very useful if you end up seeing a sleep specialist.

    To track your patterns, you want to create a sleep journal. Some of the things you’ll want to track daily include:

    • What time you woke up
    • What time you went to bed
    • The quality of sleep you felt you had
    • Medications taken
    • Your feelings before you went to sleep
    • Foods and beverages (especially caffeine) you had before bed

    Many times, a sleep journal can help pinpoint unhealthy sleep habits, such as drinking caffeine before bed, allowing you to change them on your own.

    Where to Find Help for Sleep Disorders

    To find help for a suspected sleep disorder, you can first start with your primary healthcare provider. Your doctor may be able to determine if it’s something in your life that’s causing you stress, such as a new job or some other big life change.

    They’ll be able to tell you if it’s something they can treat, or if it’s something you’ll need to seek a specialist about.

    A sleep specialist will get in-depth with you about your symptoms and how they’re impacting your life. They may perform a variety of tests to determine the type of treatment you’d benefit from most.

    Specialists will take a look at your sleep journal to identify your typical sleep pattern. They take many things into consideration before diagnosing and treating patients.