Sleep disorders: types and treatment

Sleep disorders are medical conditions that affect the quality and duration of your sleep. The lack of sleep they cause can seriously affect your daytime activity, your quality of life, and your overall health.

There are many types of sleep disorders, and knowing the symptoms of each can help you and your healthcare provider figure out what is causing you persistent fatigue and, most importantly, what to do about it.

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The medical community has identified and identified more than 100 different sleep disorders.

The four main types of sleep disorders are:

  • Difficulty falling asleep and sleeping
  • Waking problems
  • Difficulty sticking to a regular sleep and wake time
  • Unusual sleep behavior

Some of the more common sleep disorders include:

  • Insomnia
  • Snoring and sleep apnea
  • Parasomnias
  • Sleep paralysis
  • Restless Leg Syndrome
  • Periodic limb movements during sleep.
  • Circadian disorders
  • Narcolepsy

Other conditions in which sleep disturbances and excessive daytime sleepiness are prominent include:

  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Jet lag
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Sleep disturbances can be due to physical or psychological factors. In turn, they can also negatively affect physical and psychological health.

What Causes Sleep Disorders?

Sleep disorders can have many possible causes, including:

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


Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, with approximately 10% of adults having chronic problems with it, and between 30% and 40% suffering from it from time to time. This causes you to not be able to get enough sleep to feel rested and you yawn all day.

Insomnia can take many forms. Some people have trouble falling asleep when they spend more than 20 to 30 minutes in bed before falling asleep. Others often wake up or wake up too early and cannot go back to sleep. Some people have a mix of different types.

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

There are several types of insomnia, including fatal familial insomnia , a rare type that, as the name suggests, runs through the family and can make sleep so bad that it becomes life-threatening.


Effective treatments for many types of insomnia include:

Snoring and sleep apnea

Snoring can seem harmless in addition to keeping your partner awake in bed. However, you snore because your throat constricts during sleep. If this is enough to interrupt your breathing for a few seconds, then it becomes a more serious relative of snoring: sleep apnea , which is a chronic and potentially serious condition.

With sleep apnea, you may stop breathing several times an hour for 10 seconds or more. This causes the level of oxygen in your blood to drop, and when your body senses it, it pulls you out of deep sleep so that you can breathe again.

Interruptions in breathing or apnea may be due to:

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

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


Sleep apnea is usually diagnosed with a sleep test , also called a polysomnogram. The good news is that there are effective treatments. The main treatment for OSA is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device . CPAP also helps some people with CSA.

Other treatments include:

  • Dental or oral devices that pull the jaw and tongue forward to avoid blocking the airway.
  • Sleeping positioners that prevent you from rolling onto your back
  • Surgical removal of excess tissue from the throat.
  • Weightloss
  • An implanted device to stimulate the throat muscles during sleep.
  • If possible, treat the underlying cause of CSA


From the Latin word for "in a dream," parasomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by abnormal sleep behavior or physiological events that occur during certain stages of sleep.

Common forms include:

However, sleep behavior is not limited to this. Several possible behaviors can occur during sleep.


The underlying cause of the parasomnia may be another sleep state, such as sleep apnea. In this case, treating the underlying disorder can stop the behavior.

Other treatments may include:

  • Stop taking medications that can cause it.
  • Precautions such as closing doors and windows or setting an alarm in case of sleepwalking.
  • Therapy and counseling

Sleep paralysis

Imagine waking up in the morning and not being able to move. As you can imagine, sleep paralysis can be terrible. This can happen during any transition between sleep and wakefulness, when you fall asleep or wake up.

Some people also have hallucinations that can be scary, such as when a stranger is standing next to you and trying to hurt you. Others may be mundane, but still confusing because you might think something happened and it didn't.

Sleep paralysis episodes usually last only a few minutes, as your brain naturally wakes up or falls asleep more fully. While the former can be intimidating, just knowing what's going on can make it less intimidating.

Very often, only one sleep paralysis occurs in your life. Researchers estimate that between 25% and 40% of people will experience it at least once. Sometimes this is for no apparent reason. However, it can be a symptom of narcolepsy or psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder. a side effect of certain medications or a symptom of poor sleep.


In most cases, sleep paralysis and associated hallucinations, while unpleasant, do not disturb your sleep or significantly affect your life. If this happens frequently or is a concern that requires treatment, options include:

  • To sleep more
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy to improve the quality and duration of sleep and helps to cope with the fear associated with hallucinations.
  • Treatment of the underlying disease

Restless Leg Syndrome

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

These sensations can include:

  • It hurt
  • Combustion
  • Tingle
  • Tingling sensation in the legs.

Symptoms usually appear when you are resting, sleeping, or trying to sleep. They can make it difficult to fall asleep, wake you from deep sleep, or wake you up. The end result is usually a lack of quality rest.

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


RLS treatments include:

During an episode of anxiety in the legs, moving the legs can alleviate these sensations. Stretching, walking, or rubbing your legs are also good options.

Periodic limb movements during sleep.

A movement disorder that is often associated with RLS is called periodic limb movement during sleep (PLMS) . PLMS involves sudden and repetitive jerking of the legs or sometimes arms while sleeping. They can be quite rhythmic and generally occur at 20-40 second intervals and can last for several hours. Many people with PLMS don't know they have them until their partner tells them.

What separates PLMS from RLS is that RLS can occur when you are resting or trying to sleep, but PLMS only occurs when you are asleep. However, many people suffer from both disorders. In most cases, the cause is unknown and researchers believe it is related to the nervous system.

PLMS can sometimes occur as a result of obstructive sleep apnea or antidepressant medication. This is usually diagnosed with a polysomnogram.


If PLMS does not disturb your sleep, it may not require treatment. However, if you experience excessive daytime sleepiness for no other reason, your PLMS may be the culprit.

Treatment includes:

If antidepressant use could be causing PLMS, talk to your doctor about the possible benefits and risks of changing your medication.

Circadian rhythm disorders

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

A mismatch can lead to insomnia or excessive sleepiness ( hypersomnia ) at the wrong time.


Treatments for circadian rhythm disorders include:

  • Properly calculated light exposure time, which may include the use of a light box
  • Melatonin to help you fall asleep at the right time
  • Maintain a regular bedtime and wake-up time


Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness. This can be serious and can cause you to fall asleep in inappropriate situations, such as while working or driving.  

Other common symptoms include:

  • Cataplexy – Often described as "sudden loss of muscle tone," cataplexy causes you to physically collapse, often in response to things like fear, excitement, laughter, or intense emotion. If you are standing, your knees may twist or you may fall to the ground and be unable to move for several minutes.
  • Sleep paralysis: is the inability to move after waking up or while falling asleep, during which you are fully awake.
  • Hypnagogic hallucinations: these are hallucinations that occur when you try to sleep . It is as if you were dreaming, but at the same time you were attentive and aware of your surroundings. They are often intimidating and can involve visual, auditory, or tactile sensations.

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


Narcolepsy is treated with medications, including:

  • Stimulants to keep you awake during the day.
  • Xirem (sodium oxybate) to improve sleep
  • Antidepressants for mild symptoms

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

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

It is characterized by:

This illness is often compared to the flu, when it never gets better. It can be serious and disabling, preventing some people from even getting out of bed. There is still a lot to learn about ME / CFS, but the reasons are believed to include:

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

ME / CFS is difficult to diagnose and other conditions, such as sleep apnea and sometimes narcolepsy, should be ruled out before considering them.


Treatment may include:

  • Antidepressants (to correct neurochemical imbalances)
  • Stimulants
  • Antiviral or antifungal medications (if the cause is an infection)
  • Additives
  • Changes in lifestyle
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy and differentiated physical therapy (highly controversial approaches)


Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain condition that is so closely related to sleep problems and various sleep disturbances that some healthcare professionals thought it was a sleep disorder. One of the main symptoms of fibromyalgia is restful sleep , which can include numerous disturbances in the sleep cycle and is believed to be caused by complex disorders in brain and immune system chemicals.

Additionally, other sleep disorders are often diagnosed in people with fibromyalgia, such as insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome. Lack of sleep exacerbates fibromyalgia symptoms , including severe, widespread pain, and increased pain can disrupt sleep, so this is a vicious cycle that many people cannot break.


Fibromyalgia medications can help improve sleep quality or reduce symptoms that cause poor sleep. It is also imperative to receive the proper treatment for any sleep disorder.

Other suggested treatments include:

Jet lag

Jet lag is a temporary condition caused by traveling across time zones, such as on long jet flights. This can leave you with symptoms caused by a disturbance in your internal circadian rhythm, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea


Jet lag can be reduced as your body adjusts over time, usually one day for each time zone you travel 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 therapy or light box to set your internal clock
  • Melatonin or sleeping pills
  • Planning ahead by adjusting sleep and wake times weeks before the trip

Seasonal affective disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a recurrent depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern. Its characteristic symptoms are major depression and, often, excessive drowsiness during the winter months.


SAD is often treated with a light box that mimics sunlight to artificially extend the amount of time you are in the light.

Other treatments include:

  • The exercise
  • Antidepressants
  • Psychotherapy

Diagnosis of sleep disorders

Health professionals use several non-invasive tests to diagnose sleep disorders, including:

  • Polysomnography (sleep study) : performed in the laboratory using electrodes.
  • Nighttime oximetry – monitors oxygen levels and heart rate
  • Titration studies : uses CPAP and often accompanies polysomnography.
  • Multiple sleep delay test : polysomnography with intermittent naps throughout the day.
  • Actigraphy : A small wristwatch-like device that tracks sleep-wake and movement cycles over extended periods of time.
  • Home Sleep Study : Study performed at home to diagnose obstructive sleep apnea and other problems.

Frequently asked questions

What sleep disorders are associated with obesity?

Sleep disorders associated with obesity include:

  • Insomnia
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Restless Leg Syndrome

It is not always clear which state is what. Obesity can be a causative factor in some sleep disorders, especially OSA and snoring, but lack of sleep due to sleep disorders can affect metabolism and lead to obesity.

How can I overcome sleep disorders?

The first step in overcoming a sleep disorder is seeing a doctor and getting a diagnosis. It is helpful to keep a sleep diary so that you can detail your sleep problems and any suspected causes. Once diagnosed, treatment depends on the condition, but many include improving sleep hygiene .

Get the word of drug information

If you think you may have a sleep disorder, talk to your doctor about it. They can refer you to a certified sleep professional for evaluation or testing. Effective diagnosis and therapy can help you fall asleep and feel better in no time.

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