How to Know if You Have a Sleep Disorder and How to Cope

When times are stressful, you’re trying to adapt to a new schedule, you’re traveling and experiencing jet lag or you’re dealing with other disruptive influences, you may experience sleep-related problems. However, if sleep deprivation or other sleep struggles become long-term issues, you may be suffering from a sleep disorder.

There are numerous types of sleep disorder, and all of them affect your ability to sleep well. Sleep disruptions can be caused by a mental health condition or stress. Regardless of the reason why you’re losing sleep, when you’re not getting adequate rest, so much more happens to your body other than just feeling tired. 

Sleep deprivation can cause difficulty in making decisions, irritability, performance issues and slower reaction times, causing those who are affected to be at risk for automobile and work-related accidents. Sleep loss can also lead to many physical problems, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. When you’re tossing and turning due to sleep issues, your bed partner may be negatively affected as well. 

So, how do you know if you have a sleep disorder? While the information below is not intended to provide a diagnosis (you need to consult your healthcare provider for that), it may help you pinpoint your symptoms and narrow down which sleep disorder they align with.

What Are the Symptoms of Sleep Disorders?

There are many different sleep disorders that include a wide range of symptoms. Below is a list of typical sleep disorder symptoms, but it is not comprehensive. You may have a sleep disorder if you: 

  • Fall asleep while driving
  • Struggle to stay awake when inactive, such as when watching television or reading
  • Have difficulty paying attention or concentrating at work or school
  • Often get told by others that you look sleepy
  • Have difficulty with your memory
  • Have slow physical and verbal responses
  • Have difficulty controlling your emotions
  • Need to take naps almost every day

Types of Sleep Disorders

Common types of sleep disorders (based on categories in the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s International Classification of Sleep Disorders – Third Edition) include:

  • Insomnia: difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep throughout the night
  • Sleep Paralysis: a brief loss of muscle control involving elements of both sleep and wakefulness, often accompanied by hallucinations
  • Sleep Apnea: abnormal breathing patterns are present during sleep; there are several types of sleep apnea
  • Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS): a type of sleep movement disorder. RLS, also called Willis-Ekbom disease, causes an uncomfortable sensation and an urge to move the legs while you try to fall asleep
  • Narcolepsy: characterized by extreme sleepiness during the day and falling asleep suddenly during the day

What Causes Sleep Disorders?

Sleep problems can be caused by various factors. Although causes may differ, the end result of all sleep disorders is that the body’s natural sleep and wake cycle is disrupted or exaggerated. Causes of sleep disorders can include: 

  • Physical issues, such as chronic pain.
  • Medical issues, such as asthma.
  • Psychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxiety disorders.
  • Environmental issues, such as alcohol.
  • Working the night shift. This work schedule interferes with our “internal clocks.”
  • Genetics. Some sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy, are genetic.
  • Medications, some interfere with sleep.
  • Aging. About half of all adults over the age of 65 have some sort of sleep disorder.

How Are Sleep Disorders Diagnosed?

Doctors trained in mental health conditions, brain and nervous system conditions, lung and breathing conditions, children’s conditions, ear, nose, and throat conditions, dental conditions, respiratory therapists, physician assistants, nurse practitioners and other nurses all work together to diagnose sleep disorders.

If you suspect that you may have a sleep disorder, discuss your symptoms with your healthcare provider. If your healthcare provider suspects that you have a sleep disorder, they may refer you to a sleep disorder clinic. A sleep specialist will review your symptoms and may suggest that you undergo a sleep study.

Your medical provider may also order various tests, including:

  • Polysomnography (PSG): An in-lab sleep study that tests oxygen levels, body movements and brain waves to determine how they disrupt sleep.
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG): Assesses electrical activity in the brain and detects any potential problems associated with this activity.
  • Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT): This daytime napping study is used in conjunction with a PSG at night to help diagnose narcolepsy.

These tests are necessary to determine the right course of treatment for sleep disorders.

How to Cope With A Sleep Disorder

Common treatments for sleep disorders include prescription medications and holistic methods such as cognitive behavior therapy, hypnosis, sleep restriction, stimulus control and relaxation techniques. Lifestyle changes, like avoiding caffeine and alcohol, are also advised.

Additional lifestyle changes that can help you get a good night’s sleep include:

  • Creating an optimal sleep environment. Make sure that your bedroom is comfortable, cool, quiet and dark. If noise keeps you awake, try using a fan or white noise machine to block out external sounds and to create a soothing atmosphere. If light interferes with your sleep, try a sleep mask or blackout curtains.
  • Thinking positively. Avoid going to bed with a negative mind set such as, “If I don’t get enough sleep tonight, how will I ever get through the day tomorrow?”
  • Avoiding using your bed for anything other than sleeping. Do not watch television, eat, work or use computers in your bedroom.
  • Trying to clear your mind before bed time. If you tend to worry in bed at night, write things down or make a to-do list earlier in the evening.
  • Establishing a regular bedtime and a relaxing routine. Try taking a warm bath, listening to soothing music or reading before bed. Relaxation exercises, meditating and waking up at the same time each morning can also be very helpful sleep techniques.
  • Not watching the clock. Turn the clock around and use only an alarm for waking up. If you can’t fall asleep in 20 minutes, leave your bedroom and read or engage in a relaxing activity somewhere else until you start to feel drowsy again.
  • Avoiding naps. If you are extremely sleepy, take a nap. However, limit day-time naps to less than 30 minutes at no later than 3pm.
  • Avoiding stimulants (coffee, tea, soda/cola, cocoa and chocolate) and heavy meals for at least four hours before bedtime. Light carbohydrate snacks such as milk, yogurt or crackers may help you fall asleep easier.
  • Avoiding alcohol and tobacco for at least four hours before bedtime and during the night.
  • Exercising regularly, but not within four hours of bedtime if you have trouble sleeping.

Try to avoid the following when it is possible and makes sense for you: 

  • Caffeinated drinks such as soda and coffee in the late afternoon or evening
  • Diet pills
  • Decongestants 
  • Antidepressants (these can suppress REM sleep, but never discontinue antidepressants without permission from your healthcare provider)
  • Tobacco
  • Alcohol

Key Takeaways

Sleep disorders can affect your quality of life so often and so severely that they can disrupt your thinking, weight, school and work performance, mental health and your general physical health. Common disorders like narcolepsy, insomnia, restless legs syndrome and sleep apnea prevent you from getting the long, deep sleep you need to function properly. 

If you’re struggling with sleep, see your healthcare provider as soon as possible. Your health and quality of life depend on good sleep. If you regularly communicate with your doctor and you stick with a treatment plan, you can find your way to better sleep.

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