The 5 Most Common Sleep Disorders

sleep disorders

According to the American Sleep Association (AMA), sleep disorders affect as many as 50 to 70 million U.S adults. When you’re not getting a good night’s sleep, there is so much more that can happen to your body other than just feeling tired.

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

What Causes Sleep Disorders?

Different sleep disorders can be caused by a variety of different factors including:

  • Other medical conditions, such as heart disease, lung disease, nerve disorders and pain
  • Mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety
  • Hormonal changes
  • Limb movements during sleep
  • Circadian rhythm disorders
  • Medicines
  • Genetics

There are also lifestyle factors that can contribute to sleep problems, including:

  • Caffeine and alcohol consumption
  • Poor sleep hygiene
  • An irregular sleep schedule such as shift work
  • Aging, which may leas to less sleep or less time spent in the deep, restful stage of sleep. As you get older, you are also more easily woken up

How Are Sleep Disorders Diagnosed?

To make a diagnosis, your health care provider will evaluate your medical and sleep history, and perform a physical exam. You may also participate in a sleep study (polysomnogram). The most common types of sleep studies record data about your body during a full night’s sleep. The data includes:

  • Brain wave changes
  • Eye movements
  • Breathing rate
  • Blood pressure
  • Heart rate and electrical activity of the heart and other muscles
sleep disorders

What Are the Most Common Types of Sleep Disorders?

The five most common sleep disorders are insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, restless legs syndrome and REM sleep behavior disorder.


If you experience difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, you may have insomnia. There are two different types of insomnia, short-term insomnia and chronic insomnia.

  1. Short-Term Insomnia: This type of insomnia often occurs in the aftermath of a stressful life event such as losing a loved one or going through relationship issues. Short-term insomnia can also happen if you work irregular shifts or have jet lag. When experiencing short-term insomnia, you might be unable to relax, experience disturbed sleep and you may be unable to pinpoint any real reason for your inability to sleep.
  2. Chronic Insomnia: Chronic insomnia is characterized by experiencing non-restorative sleep, having difficulty falling asleep and having difficulty maintaining sleep for at least one month. You may also experience a sleeping pattern where you have a few nights of good sleep alternating with many nights of insomnia.

Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious yet common sleep disorder. When you have sleep apnea, your airway repeatedly becomes blocked and you stop breathing. As this occurs, you might make choking noises or snore loudly, and then wake up because your body and brain are oxygen-deprived. This will typically happen a few times a night. However, in severe cases, this can happen hundreds of times per night.

Common Treatment Types for Sleep Apnea

There are various ways sleep apnea can be treated.

  • CPAP Therapy: A CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure therapy) machine is used to keep your airways open as you sleep. The machine uses mild air pressure and is attached to a mask or prongs that fit in your nose.
  • Alternatives: If you don’t like the idea of wearing a mask to bed, there are alternative treatment methods such as:
    • Wearing a dental or oral appliance.
    • Having surgery. If oral appliances and CPAP don’t work for you, surgery is an option.
    • Undergoing a weight management program. Losing weight may help improve or eliminate your symptoms if you’re obese or overweight.
    • Trying positional therapy. Some people primarily suffer from sleep apnea when they sleep on their back. Positional therapy often involves wearing a device that keeps you sleeping on your side.


Narcolepsy causes you to suddenly fall asleep at any time no matter where you are. Oftentimes, you fall asleep uncontrollably during unusual circumstances, such as while eating. People with narcolepsy are unable to regulate their sleep-wake cycle.

Common Symptoms of Narcolepsy

You could have narcolepsy if:

    • You fall asleep without warning.
    • You suffer from sleep paralysis.
    • You experience cataplexy (temporary loss of muscle control that makes you feel weak or could make you collapse. Cataplexy is usually a response to emotions like anger or laughter).
    • Hallucinations as you transition from wake to sleep (hypnagogic) or from sleep to wake (hypnopompic).
    • Insomnia and disturbed nighttime sleep.

Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is an uncontrollable urge or desire to maneuver your legs while you’re resting. You could also experience unpleasant aching, tingling, burning and a feeling that something is crawling on your legs.

Common Symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome

You could have restless legs syndrome if:

  • You feel strong urges to move your legs.
  • You suffer from a crawling sensation or ache in your legs.
  • Your symptoms are worse when you’re inactive.
  • Your symptoms get worse at night.
  • You find some relief from your symptoms when you stretch, walk or move.

REM Sleep Behavior Disorder

Those who have REM sleep behavior disorder act out their dreams while they sleep. REM sleep behavior disorder occurs in those who lack the muscle paralysis most people experience while sleeping. When the condition causes danger to you or anyone around you, it should be taken particularly seriously.

Common Symptoms of REM Sleep Behavior Disorder

You could have REM sleep behavior disorder if:

  • You move your limbs in your sleep.
  • You shout, talk, hit, punch, scream and more while asleep.
  • You may also have a similar yet rare disorder called periodic limb movement disorder that mimics the symptoms of RBD.

Tips For Getting A Good Night’s Sleep

  • Create 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 sound and to create a soothing atmosphere. If light interferes with your sleep, try a sleep mask or blackout curtains.
  • Think positive. 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?”
  • Avoid using your bed for anything other than sleeping. Do not watch television, eat, work or use computers in your bedroom.
  • Try 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.
  • Establish a regular bedtime and a relaxing routine. Try taking a warm bath, listening to soothing music or reading. Relaxation exercises, meditating and waking up at the same time each morning can also be very helpful sleep techniques.
  • Stop 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.
  • Avoid naps. If you are extremely sleepy, take a nap. However, limit day-time naps to less than 30 minutes at no later than 3 pm.
  • Avoid 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.
  • Avoid alcohol and tobacco for at least four hours before bedtime and during the night.
  • Exercise regularly, but not within four hours of bedtime when you have trouble sleeping.

Suffering from a sleep disorder can be stressful; your mental and physical health may be negatively affected, making you feel irritable, exhausted and alone. Your home, love, work and social life might also suffer. The good news is that there is help and treatment available, and no matter how it may feel, you’re not alone.

Generally, sleep disorders can be treated with medications tailored to your own specific needs. For instance, if anxiety or depression are the underlying cause of your condition, your physician may prescribe you with antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications.

Non-medical methods such as cognitive behavior therapy, hypnosis, sleep restriction, stimulus control and relaxation techniques can also be used to treat insomnia. Lifestyle changes, such as avoiding caffeine and alcohol, are also advised. In order to get an official diagnosis, always seek medical advice from a health care provider who specializes in sleep disorders.

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