Sleep Disorders: Types and Treatments

Sleep disorders are medical conditions that affect the quality and duration of your sleep. The sleep deprivation they cause can have a major impact on your daytime functioning, quality of life, and overall health.

There are many types of sleep disorders, and knowing the symptoms of each can help you and your provider figure out what’s causing you to be tired all the time and—most importantly—what to do about it.

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More than 100 different sleep disorders have been recognized and defined by the medical community.

The four main types of sleep disorders are:

  • Problems falling asleep and staying asleep
  • Problems staying awake
  • Problems keeping a regular sleep-wake schedule
  • Unusual behaviors during sleep

Some of the most sleep disorders include:

  • Insomnia 
  • Snoring and sleep apnea
  • Parasomnias
  • Sleep paralysis
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Periodic limb movements of sleep
  • Circadian disorders
  • Narcolepsy

Other conditions in which sleep disturbances and excessive daytime sleepiness figure prominently include:

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Jet lag
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Sleep disorders may be caused by physical or psychological factors. In turn, they can also have a negative effect on physical and psychological health.

What Causes Sleep Disorders?

Sleep disorders have many possible causes, including:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Lifestyle factors such as shift work, frequent travel, or irregular schedules
  • Mood issues, such as anxiety or depression
  • Dietary factors, including too much caffeine or alcohol
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Medical conditions, including pain, depression, and heart disease
  • Certain medications
  • Aging

Insomnia

Insomnia is the most sleep disorder, with about 10% of adults having a chronic problem with it and between 30% and 40% dealing with it now and then. It makes you unable to get enough sleep to feel rested and leaves you yawning all day.

Insomnia can take many forms. Some people have trouble falling asleep, which is defined as spending more than 20 to 30 minutes in bed before dozing off. Others wake up frequently or awaken hours too early and can’t get back to sleep. Some people have a combination of different types.

Insomnia can be either acute (short term) or chronic (long term). You can be diagnosed with chronic insomnia if your problem occurs at least three nights per week for at least three months.

There are several types of insomnia, including fatal familial insomnia—a rare type that, as its name suggests, runs in families and can impair sleep so much that it becomes life-threatening. 

Treatments

Effective treatments for many types of insomnia include:

Snoring and Sleep Apnea

Snoring may seem harmless, other than keeping your bed partner awake. However, you snore because your throat is closing while you sleep. If it’s bad enough to cut off breathing for a few seconds, then it becomes snoring’s more serious cousin—sleep apnea, which is a chronic and potentially serious medical condition.

With sleep apnea, you may stop breathing multiple times per hour for 10 seconds or longer at a time. That makes the oxygen levels in your blood drop, and when your body senses that, it pulls you out of deep sleep to get you breathing again.

Breathing interruptions, or apneas, can be caused by:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a condition in which an obstruction of the upper airway interrupts breathing
  • Central sleep apnea (CSA), a serious condition caused by brain dysfunction

The effects of sleep apnea can cause and worsen other medical conditions, including hypertension, heart failure, and diabetes. Over time, it can also contribute to the risk of serious consequences such as a heart attack or heart failure, stroke, and sudden death.

Treatments

Sleep apnea is typically diagnosed with a sleep study, also called polysomnography. The good news is that there are effective treatments. The primary treatment for OSA is a continuous positive airway pressure machine (CPAP). CPAP also helps some people who have CSA.

Other treatments include:

  • Dental devices or mouth appliances that pull the jaw and tongue forward so they can’t block the airways
  • Positional sleep aids that keep you from rolling onto your back
  • Surgical removal of excess throat tissues
  • Weight loss
  • Implanted device to stimulate throat muscles during sleep
  • When possible, treating the underlying cause of CSA

Parasomnias

From the Latin meaning “around sleep,” parasomnias are sleep disorders characterized by abnormal sleep behaviors or physiological events that occur during specific stages of sleep.

forms include: 

Sleep behaviors aren’t limited to these, though. A number of potential behaviors can occur while you’re sleeping.

Treatments

The underlying cause of parasomnias may be another sleep condition, such as sleep apnea. In that case, treating the underlying condition may stop the behavior.

Other treatments may include:

  • Stopping medication that could be causing it
  • Safety precautions, such as locking or putting alarms on doors and windows in case of sleepwalking
  • Therapy and counseling

Sleep Paralysis

Imagine waking up in the morning and being unable to move. As you might imagine, sleep paralysis can be terrifying. It can happen during any transition between sleep and being awake, either as you drift off or as you wake up.

Some people also have hallucinations, which can be frightening—such as a stranger standing over you and trying to hurt you. Others may be mundane but still confusing, because you may think something happened when it didn’t.

Episodes of sleep paralysis typically last only a few minutes, as your brain naturally either wakes up or falls asleep more fully. While the first few may be frightening, just knowing what’s going on can make it less scary.

It’s fairly common to have an isolated incident of sleep paralysis in your life. Researchers estimate that between 25% and 40% of people will experience it at least once. It sometimes has no identifiable cause. However, it can be a symptom of narcolepsy or mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder, a side effect of some medications, or a symptom of sleep deprivation.

Treatments

Most of the time, sleep paralysis and the associated hallucinations, while unpleasant, don’t disrupt your sleep or have a significant impact on your life. If it’s frequent or disturbing enough to need treatment, options include:

  • Getting more sleep
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy to improve sleep quality and duration and help cope with hallucination-related fear
  • Treating the underlying condition

Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a neurological movement disorder characterized by unpleasant feelings in the legs associated with a need to move.

These sensations may include:

  • Aches
  • Burning
  • Tingling
  • Crawling sensation on the legs

Typically, symptoms come on when you’re resting, sleeping, or trying to fall asleep. They can make it difficult to fall asleep, bring you out of deep sleep, or wake you from sleep. The end result is often a lack of quality rest.

RLS has many potential causes, including iron deficiency, pregnancy, obesity, and certain drugs (including medications, nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine), and supplements that can disrupt sleep.

Treatments

RLS treatments include:

During an episode of restless legs, moving your legs can help relieve the sensations. Stretching, walking, or rubbing your legs may be good options, as well.

Periodic Limb Movements of Sleep

A movement disorder often associated with RLS is called periodic limb movements of sleep (PLMS). PLMS involves sudden, repetitive jerking movements of the legs or sometimes arms while you’re asleep. They can be fairly rhythmic and typically happen between about 20 and 40 seconds apart and can continue for several hours. Many people with PLMS aren’t aware that they have it until a sleeping partner tells them.

What distinguishes PLMS from RLS is that RLS can happen when you’re resting or trying to get to sleep, but PLMS only happens when you’re asleep. However, many people have both disorders. In most cases, the cause is unknown, and researchers think it involves the nervous system.

PLMS can sometimes occur as a result of obstructive sleep apnea or antidepressant use. It’s typically diagnosed with a polysomnogram.

Treatments

If PLMS doesn’t disrupt your sleep, it may not require treatment. If you do experience excessive daytime sleepiness without another cause, though, your PLMS may be to blame.

Treatments include:

If antidepressant use may be causing PLMS, talk to your provider about the potential benefits and risks of a medication change.

Circadian Rhythm Disorders

Circadian rhythm disorders are conditions that may result from your internal biological clock being out of sync with external time cues, including the natural dark-light cycle. The cause of being out of sync can include:

The mismatch may lead to insomnia or excessive sleepiness (hypersomnia) at inappropriate times.

Treatments

Treatments for circadian rhythm disorders include:

  • Properly timed light exposure, which may include using a light box
  • Melatonin to help you fall asleep at an appropriate time
  • Adherence to a regular sleep-wake schedule

Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness. This can be profound and may lead to falling asleep in inappropriate situations, such as while working or driving a car. 

Other common symptoms include:

  • Cataplexy: Often described as a “sudden loss of muscle tone,” cataplexy makes you physically collapse, often in response to things like being startled, getting excited, laughing, or experiencing a strong emotion. If you’re standing, your knees may buckle or you may fall to the ground and be unable to move for a few minutes.
  • Sleep paralysis: This is an inability to move upon waking or while falling asleep, during which you’re fully alert.
  • Hypnagogic hallucinations: These are hallucinations that occur while you’re trying to fall asleep. It’s as if you’re dreaming while also alert and aware of your surroundings. They’re often frightening and can include visual, auditory, or tactile sensations.

This potentially dangerous and downright scary condition is believed to be caused by the lack of a brain chemical called hypocretin, which promotes wakefulness and maintains muscle tone. This lack may be due to an autoimmune process, genetics, brain tumors or lesions, or other damage to the brain.

Treatments

Narcolepsy is treated with medications, including:

  • Stimulants to keep you awake during the day
  • Xyrem (sodium oxybate) to improve sleep
  • Antidepressants to moderate symptoms

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome (also called myalgic encephalomyelitis or ME/CFS) is not defined as a sleep disorder, but it has much in common with them.

It’s characterized by:

This disease is often likened to coming down with the flu and never getting better. It can be severe and incapacitating, making some people unable to even get out of bed. Much remains to be learned about ME/CFS, but the causes are believed to include:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Immune system abnormalities
  • Central nervous system dysfunction
  • Certain infections
  • Exposure to toxins

ME/CFS is difficult to diagnose and other medical conditions, including sleep apnea and sometimes narcolepsy, should be ruled out before it’s considered.

Treatments

Treatments can include:

  • Antidepressants (to correct neurochemical imbalances)
  • Stimulants
  • Antiviral or antifungal medications (if infection is a cause)
  • Supplements
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy and graded exercise therapy (which are highly controversial approaches)

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain condition that’s so closely related to sleep problems and several sleep disorders that some healthcare providers used to consider it a sleep disorder. One of the major symptoms of fibromyalgia is unrefreshing sleep that can involve numerous dysfunctions of the sleep cycle and is believed to be caused by complex abnormalities in brain chemicals and the immune system.

In addition, people with fibromyalgia frequently are diagnosed with other sleep disorders, including insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, and restless legs syndrome. Poor sleep exacerbates fibromyalgia symptoms, including severe widespread pain, and increased pain can disrupt sleep, so it’s a vicious cycle many people can’t break.

Treatments

Fibromyalgia medications may help improve sleep quality or decrease the symptoms that contribute to sleep deprivation. It’s also crucial to get proper treatment for any sleep disorders.

Other suggested treatments include:

Jet Lag

Jet lag is a temporary condition caused by travel across time zones—as may occur with long jet trips. It can leave you with symptoms resulting from disruption of your internal circadian rhythm, including:

Treatments

Jet lag may be improved as your body adjusts over time, typically one day for each time zone you’ve traveled through. So, for example, if you travel from New York to California, you should expect to feel better in about three days.

You can also use:

  • Sunlight or light box therapy to adjust your internal clock
  • Melatonin or sleeping pills
  • Pre-planning by adjusting the time you sleep and wake up in the weeks before you travel

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a recurrent depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern. Its prominent symptoms are those of major depression and it often includes excessive sleepiness during the winter months.

Treatments

SAD is often treated by the use of a lightbox, which simulates sunlight, to artificially extend the length of time you’re exposed to light.

Other treatments include:

  • Exercise
  • Antidepressants
  • Psychotherapy

Diagnosing Sleep Disorders

Healthcare providers use several noninvasive tests to diagnose sleep disorders, including:

  • Polysomnography (sleep study): Performed in a lab using electrodes
  • Overnight oximetry: Tracks oxygen levels and heart rate
  • Titration studies: Uses a CPAP and usually accompanies polysomnography
  • Multiple sleep latency testing: Polysomnography followed by periodic attempts at napping through the day
  • Actigraphy: A small wrist-watch-like device monitors sleep-wake cycles and movement for extended periods of time
  • Home sleep study: A study performed at home to diagnose obstructive sleep apnea and other problems

The first step to overcoming a sleeping disorder is to see your healthcare provider and get a diagnosis. It can help if you keep a sleep journal so you can provide a thorough description of your sleep problems and any suspected causes. Once you’re diagnosed, treatments vary by condition, but many of them include improved sleep hygiene.

A Word From Verywell

If you think you may have a sleep disorder, talk to your healthcare provider about it. They may refer you to a board-certified sleep physician for an evaluation or testing. A diagnosis and effective therapy may have you sleeping and feeling better in no time.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Which sleep disorders are associated with obesity?

    Sleep disorders that are associated with obesity include:

    • Insomnia
    • Obstructive sleep apnea
    • Restless legs syndrome

    It’s not always clear which condition causes the other. It may be that obesity is a causal factor of some sleep disorders, especially OSA and snoring, but sleep deprivation due to a sleep disorder can impact metabolism and lead to obesity as well.

  • How can I overcome a sleeping disorder?

    The first step to overcoming a sleep disorder is to see your healthcare provider and get a diagnosis. Keeping a sleep journal can help you provide a thorough description of your problems and any suspected causes. Once you’re diagnosed, treatments vary by condition, but many of them include improved sleep hygiene.

  • What is REM sleep behavior disorder?

    Rapid eye movement (REM) behavior disorder is a type of parasomnia, which causes abnormal sleep behaviors. With REM behavior disorder, you physically act out dreams while in REM sleep. This can range from hand gestures to violent thrashing, kicking, or punching.

  • What sleep disorder do you have if you experience sleep attacks?

    Sleep attacks are a symptom of narcolepsy. They happen when you get a sudden, overwhelming feeling of sleepiness. Between sleep attacks, you may have a normal sense of feeling awake with the attacks seeming to come out of nowhere.

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