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Common Sleep Disorders: Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

Ana Marie Schick Feb 09, 2023

Sleep disorders

While everyone looks forward to a great night’s rest, many are only able to daydream about it. For some, a night can seem endless due to tossing and turning from a recognized sleep disorder. In fact, up to 70 million people [1] in the United States alone suffer from chronic long-term sleep disorders.

Whether it’s insomnia, narcolepsy, or sleep-related breathing disorders, the good news is most disorders can be alleviated or cured with the proper diagnosis and treatment.

When you find depression, even when you find anxiety, when you scratch the surface, 80 to 90 percent of the time you find a sleep problem as well.

Brad Wolgast

University of Delaware, psychologist

Below, we’ll highlight the more common sleep disorders, how they can affect you and how to treat them.

What Are Sleep Disorders?

Sleep issues (sleep-wake disorders) disrupt the quality, timing, and quantity of sleep a person gets, leading to distress and impairment during the day. These disorders can accompany medical or other mental health issues, particularly depression, anxiety, and cognitive disorders. The most common sleep-wake disorder is insomnia, with other types such as obstructive sleep apnea, parasomnias, narcolepsy, and restless leg syndrome following behind.

The Importance of Sleep

Sleep is necessary for both health and well-being. It affects how you heal, how you feel when you're awake, and helps your body and brain function. In children and teenagers, it's important for physical growth, academic performance, and mental health. A lack of sleep drastically increases the risk of long-term health problems and sleep disorders.

What Are Common Sleep Disorders?

A large portion of the population struggle with sleep-related issues. With approximately 80 types of sleep disorders, we’ve highlighted the most common ones and included descriptions.

Insomnia

Insomnia is a disorder that prevents you from getting the adequate rest you need. [2] Whether it’s categorized as difficulty falling asleep, waking up throughout the night, or both, it’s incredibly common and extremely frustrating.

While all cases vary, some insomnia is brought on by stress or other psychological pressures. In contrast, other cases could be related to medical conditions such as sleep apnea, or chronic pain.

If you feel as though you’re suffering from insomnia, visit your doctor to discuss your options. Depending on what is causing your insomnia, whether it be psychological or medical, treatments range from:

  • Cognitive Therapy
  • Medical Therapy
  • Alternative Medicines

Symptoms of Insomnia

  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Weight Gain
  • Difficulty Concentrating
  • Often interferes with school and work performance

Did You Know?

As many as 50% of adults may experience insomnia at some point in their lives.

Narcolepsy

Have you ever felt so tired you could fall asleep right where you are? With narcolepsy, that could very well happen. It’s estimated that the number of people that suffer from narcolepsy in the US is anywhere from 135,000 to 200,000. [3], and almost 3 million suffer worldwide.

Narcoleptics tend to struggle during their day-to-day activities because, due to their symptoms, they could fall asleep at any moment, have the potential to hallucinate as they move between their asleep and awake states, and can suffer from sleep paralysis.

Common symptoms of narcolepsy include daytime sleepiness, change in REM sleep, sudden loss of muscle tone, sleep paralysis, and hallucinations.

If you are unaware, sleep paralysis is a phenomenon where your muscles are relaxed and unable to move, but you’re conscious and aware of your surroundings.

It’s thought that only 25% of cases of narcolepsy are diagnosed, and many people suffer with these symptoms without knowing that there could be help [4]. If you are experiencing any of these issues, you should speak with your doctor.

While narcolepsy cannot be fully cured, some medicinal alternatives and therapies could make a narcoleptic’s day much easier. Treatments range from:

  • Modern medications
  • Lifestyle adjustments
  • Support groups

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is dangerous for various reasons. If you suffer from sleep apnea, [5] this means that your breathing is often interrupted throughout the night, which results in an improper flow of oxygen to your brain and the rest of your body. This can occur in one of two ways - either your throat muscles relax, causing an obstructed airway, or your brain stops sending signals to your body to breathe.

Due to the poor airflow circulation throughout your body, you could develop other health-related problems [6] like an irregular heartbeat, depression, diabetes, and more. The good news is there are solutions that can help you breathe throughout the night, like a CPAP machine.

CPAP, meaning “Continuous Positive Airway Pressure,” helps you breathe throughout the night and prevents your airway from collapsing when it normally might.

Other treatments include:

  • EPAP machine
  • Surgery
  • Oral Appliances

Types of Sleep Apnea

There are two types of sleep apnea.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea: This occurs when the airway becomes blocked or narrowed, causing a cessation of airflow.

Central Sleep Apnea: Where there is a disruption in the connection between the brain and the muscles responsible for controlling breathing.

Sleep disorder; restless leg syndrome

Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a disorder that causes severe twitching and tingling throughout the muscles in the legs. The only way to alleviate this pain is to move your legs, resulting in sleep disruption. RLS is typically caused by chronic conditions, medications, or pregnancy and can easily lead to sleepiness and daytime fatigue.

It can be frustrating to people with Restless Leg Syndrome because its symptoms don’t appear until a person is relaxed or lying down, preventing them from falling asleep at night or getting a full night’s rest.

There are a variety of non-medication options for those that suffer from RLS. However, if those options don’t work, it’s best to seek medical advice for additional recommendations.

As of now, there is no known cure for RLS. However, there are a few steps that a person suffering from RLS can take to help lessen the severity of the symptoms:

  • Regular exercise
  • Decrease in caffeine or alcohol
  • Medication, though medication doesn’t always help

Read More: Sleeping Cooler Can Help Minimize Restless Leg Syndrom

Did You Know?

The prevalence of restless leg syndrome (RLS) in the United States is thought to be between 7-10% of the population, with a higher incidence among women than men. Additionally, this sleep disorder, unfortunately, can occur at any age. [7]

Night Terrors

Night terrors are defined as episodes of extreme movement, kicking & screaming, and fear while asleep. [8] While they can affect children and adults, they more commonly affect children. Although they are quite literally terrifying in nature, most children will grow out of them by their teenage years.

They typically happen in children due to an over-arousal of the central nervous system during sleep. Nightmares differ from night terrors because nightmares happen during the REM stage of sleep, while night terrors happen during deep, non-REM sleep.

Sleep Terrors vs. Night Terrors

Sleep terrors are literally the same as Night Terrors, but they happen in adults. They can be caused by anything from a head injury to stress or medications and even by sleep deprivation.

They differ from nightmares because the sufferer of a nightmare will often awake from the bad dream with a vague memory of the incident. With Sleep Terrors, an adult is less likely to remember the reason for the terror, just small bits, perhaps.

Additionally, individuals cannot wake up when they suffer from Night Terror. This occurs during non-REM sleep, generally stage 4 of the REM sleep cycle, which makes it extremely difficult to wake up or be woken up during the night terror.

Even if you move around, walk around the house or engage in aggressive behavior, it is likely you will not remember it in the morning.

After conducting tests, depending on the root cause of the Sleep Terrors, the treatment could revolve around the following:

  • Improved sleep habits
  • Medication
  • Counseling

Parasomnias

Parasomnias can occur in a state between sleep and wakefulness. A person may act alertly, such as walking, talking, eating, etc., but without awareness. Another type of parasomnia may cause sleep terrors or paralysis due to the brain being only partly conscious.

Below are the most common types of actions related to parasomnia:

  • Sleepwalking
  • Groaning
  • Sleep-related Eating Disorders
  • Sleep Talking
  • Teeth grinding or Jaw clenching

When to See Your Doctor

As you can see, many different types of sleep disorders affect so many individuals. Suppose you or anyone you know is afflicted with any of the above sleep disorders and you/they have been unable to get relief without medical assistance. In that case, it might be time to reach out to a doctor or a professional.

Final Thoughts

While there are a variety of sleep disorders, there are solutions and steps that will allow you to take back a good night’s sleep. Whether it’s medical treatment or lifestyle changes, both can greatly improve your sleep quality.

Citations/Resources

[1] SingleCare Team. (2021, March 25). How much sleep does the average American get? View Resource

[2] Mayo Clinic. (2016, October 15). Insomnia - Symptoms and causes. View Resource

[3] Narcolepsy Fact Sheet | National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2022, September 27). View Resource

[4] Mitler, M. M., Hajdukovic, R., Erman, M., & Koziol, J. A. (1990). Narcolepsy. Journal of clinical neurophysiology : official publication of the American Electroencephalographic Society, 7(1), 93–118. View Study

[5] Mayo Clinic. (2020, July 28). Sleep apnea - Symptoms and causes. View Resource

[6] Alexandra Benisek. (2021, September 7). Sleep Apnea Basics. View Resource

[7] Restless Legs Syndrome Fact Sheet | National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (n.d.). View Resource

[8] Sleep terrors (night terrors) - Symptoms and causes. (2018). View Resource

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