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The Most Common Sleep Disorders and How to Treat Them

Updated November 27, 2019

female silhouette crouched down to her kneesAlmost everyone has an occasional night without restful sleep. Illness, stress, noise, or any number of things can keep you awake and leave you feeling sleepy and groggy in the morning.

For some people, though, a lack of restful sleep isn’t just an annoyance that happens every once in a while. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 37% of adults rate their sleep as “fair” or “poor” and report not waking up feeling refreshed at least once per week. Despite sleep being vital to overall health and well-being, and a lack of sleep being tied to many chronic diseases (including diabetes and heart disease), many people simply aren’t able to get the rest they need. In some cases, a lack of sleep is tied to lifestyle factors or habits (like not making sleep a priority), but for many people, a sleep disorder is to blame.

Sleep experts have identified more than 80 different sleep disorders that affect adults and children. Here are some of the most common, collectively affecting more than 70 million Americans.

Insomnia

Insomnia refers to the inability to fall or stay asleep. Symptoms typically include taking longer than normal to fall asleep (10 to 20 minutes is considered the norm), consistently waking throughout the night, waking up too early, and waking up not feeling refreshed despite spending hours in bed. Because at least 50% of adults experience occasional insomnia at some point in their lives, doctors will only diagnose you with this sleep disorder if you experience symptoms for three months or longer. Doctors also differentiate between types of insomnia: Chronic insomnia refers to being unable to sleep at least three nights per week for three months or longer, while acute or transient insomnia tends to be shorter-lived or come and go over time.

Regardless of whether insomnia is chronic or acute, most people with the disorder eventually end up feeling rather miserable. As you might expect, the most common effect of insomnia is feeling tired during the day, which can affect your focus, mood, and coordination. These issues alone are reason enough to talk with a doctor about any sleep issues you have, but the fact that insomnia is often a symptom of another underlying issue should convince you to make an appointment. For example, insomnia is often associated with conditions like sleep apnea, which can have serious consequences if left untreated.

Insomnia can be treated in a number of ways, using everything from medication and treatments for underlying medical issues to cognitive behavioral therapy. Changes to sleep hygiene, like improving your sleeping area, bedtime routine, and schedule, are also typically part of an insomnia treatment protocol.

Sleep Apnea

After insomnia, sleep apnea is the second-most common sleep disorder, affecting an estimated 22 million people in the U.S. alone. The American Sleep Apnea Association estimates that approximately 80% of cases go undiagnosed, largely because people assume their symptoms are unrelated. For example, some people just assume that snoring is normal and do not consider that it could be harmful.

In the most general sense, sleep apnea is a condition that causes you to stop breathing for brief periods when sleeping. There are two primary types of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the soft tissue at the back of your throat collapses while you’re sleeping, causing you to stop breathing and wake up choking or gasping for air. This can happen dozens of times an hour, often without you even realizing it.

Central sleep apnea is less common and is related to your central nervous system. Instead of having your breathing disrupted by a blocked airway, with central sleep apnea, your brain essentially “forgets” to remind your body to breathe. With this type of apnea, you may not snore or choke, but you are more likely to realize you’re waking up.

Sleep apnea stems from a number of issues, but one of the most common is obesity. Larger than normal tonsils, endocrine disorders, heart disease, and neuromuscular conditions can also cause sleep apnea. Regardless of the cause, treatment is important, as untreated apnea can contribute to heart attacks, diabetes, cancer, and other health problems. Therefore, if you notice some of the signs of sleep apnea, including snoring, waking up gasping for air, waking in the morning with headaches, and daytime sleepiness, talk with your doctor.

Once diagnosed with sleep apnea, you’ll likely be prescribed a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine for sleep to help regulate your breathing. Depending on your circumstances, lifestyle changes like losing weight and quitting smoking may be in order.

Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome, or RLS, is marked by an uncomfortable and uncontrollable urge to move your limbs (usually, but not always, the legs) when lying down. It can keep you awake at night because you might feel like you need to walk around or move your legs to reduce the discomfort.

Researchers are unsure why some people get RLS, but it does tend to affect women more than men, especially during pregnancy.

The signs of RLS are fairly well-defined: an uncomfortable sensation in your legs, perhaps like something is crawling on you, with symptoms worsening at night and when you’re inactive. They may be relieved by moving around. In most cases, RLS is treated with medication and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Sleepwalking

The popular image of sleepwalking, or somnambulism, is of someone walking around in a daze with their arms outstretched like a cartoon zombie. The reality is that sleepwalking isn’t always that obvious, and it can actually be quite dangerous. Most common in children, sleepwalking can cause people to do things in their sleep that they wouldn’t do while awake, and unknowingly put themselves in danger by going outdoors or trying to cook.

Sleepwalking episodes can be brought on by a number of factors, including illness and fever, as well as not getting enough sleep. However, scientists aren’t entirely certain what causes sleepwalking, suspecting it’s related to underlying conditions as well as genetic factors.

Regardless of the causes, treatment usually involves being aware of the issue, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, and limiting liquid intake before bed to reduce awakenings.

Bruxism

Approximately 8% of adults are affected by bruxism, or the habit of grinding their teeth while they sleep. Most often brought on by stress and anxiety, the shape of the teeth or jaw can also contribute to the issue for some people.

Grinding can be very detrimental to your teeth, causing them to wear down, crack, or even break in extreme cases. You might also experience jaw pain, soreness, or headaches upon waking. Your sleeping partner is also likely to hear you grinding and may say something. The most common treatment for bruxism is a mouth guard, which you can either purchase over the counter or have custom-made by a dentist.

Less Common Sleep Disorders

Although these are the most common sleep disorders, there are plenty of others that are rarer, but just as detrimental to your health, including:

  • Narcolepsy: An inability to differentiate between being asleep and awake, and spontaneous sleeping episodes throughout the day
  • REM sleep behavior disorder: Acting out your dreams while you sleep because you don’t experience muscle paralysis when sleeping
  • Non-24-hour sleep-wake disorder: A disorder common among blind individuals whose circadian rhythms are disrupted by a lack of light, causing them to sleep during the day and stay awake at night
  • Periodic limb movement disorder: When you rhythmically move your limbs throughout the night as you sleep

How Sleep Disorders Are Diagnosed

girl laying down in a sleep study

Any time your sleep is disrupted for more than a few nights, it’s important to talk with your doctor. In fact, if you are regularly waking up feeling like you haven’t gotten enough sleep, keep a sleep journal to show your doctor. Noting when you went to bed and woke up, how many times you woke up during the night, and how you felt in the morning can give your doctor a starting point for diagnosis.

Sleep disorders are commonly diagnosed via a sleep study. In a sleep study, you will spend the night in a sleep lab (which typically resembles a hotel room) where technicians can monitor your breathing, heart rate, brain activity, movement, and other vital signs to get a clear picture of what’s happening when you sleep. Your doctor will use this information to make a diagnosis and develop a treatment plan to help you get more rest.

Although sleep disorders are common, they don’t have to ruin your life. When you know the signs, you can act, and ensure you have sweet dreams and wake up refreshed every morning.