Sleep disorders: An informative guide about common sleep disturbances

Sleep is for the weak — right? While it might make us feel better to declare this adage after a late night, the opposite is true. Sleep is essential to living a happy, healthy life, and even one restless night can have a significant impact. 

Now, it’s also true that we (yes, all of us) struggle to fall or stay asleep on occasion. This is normal, and it isn’t anything to be concerned about. That is unless it becomes a recurrent problem. If you’re experiencing regular sleep interruptions, there might be something more serious going on, like a sleep disorder.

Given that you’re on this page, you likely have a sleep disorder or are concerned that you have a sleep disorder. In either case, we’re here to help you better understand sleep disorders, from insomnia to sleep apnea. We answer the most frequently asked questions about these disorders and point you in the right direction for getting help.

What are sleep disorders?

Sleep disorders are simply conditions that interrupt your normal sleep. There are over 80 sleep disorders including insomnia (which you’re probably familiar with) and restless REM sleep behavior disorder (which you might not be as familiar with). 

The symptoms of sleep disorders can vary greatly from difficulty sleeping to trouble falling asleep, daytime sleepiness, and unusual movement while asleep.

What are the 6 types of sleep disorders?

The International Classification of Sleep Disorders (ICSD), third edition, groups sleep disorders into 6 main categories:

    1. Insomnia is difficulty falling or staying asleep, which harms day-to-day functioning. There are several subcategories of insomnia, such as chronic insomnia disorder and short-term insomnia disorder.
    2. Sleep-related breathing disorders are characterized by difficulty breathing during sleep and caused by obstructed airways. Disorders in this category include obstructive sleep apnea disorders, central sleep apnea syndrome, sleep-related hypoventilation disorders, and sleep-related hypoxemia disorder.
    3. Central disorders of hypersomnolence are characterized by daytime sleepiness that is not a result of a poor night’s sleep. These disorders include narcolepsy (type I and II), idiopathic hypersomnia, Kleine-Levin syndrome, and hypersomnia.
    4. Circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders are also characterized by daytime sleepiness, but in this case, as a result of a disruption in their normal circadian rhythm. Disorders include delayed sleep-wake phase disorder, irregular sleep-wake rhythm, advanced sleep-wake phase disorder, and jet lag disorder.
    5. Parasomnias are unwanted movements or actions during sleep. Disorders in this category include REM sleep behavior disorder, nightmare disorder, exploding head syndrome, and sleep-related hallucinations.
    6. Sleep-related movement disorders are characterized by repetitive movements that disrupt sleep. These disorders include restless legs syndrome, sleep-related bruxism, and periodic limb movement disorder.

What are the 5 main sleep disorders?

As mentioned earlier, there are over 80 sleep disorders, but the 5 major (or most common) sleep disorders are restless legs syndrome (RLS), insomnia, REM sleep behavior disorder, sleep apnea, and narcolepsy. Here is a little more information about each:

  1. Restless legs syndrome (RLS) causes your legs to move due to an uncomfortable sensation. Typically, this happens at night when you’re trying to sleep. 
  2. Insomnia is, again, characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep. We all have nights where we don’t sleep well — but if you’re constantly struggling to fall or stay asleep, you might have insomnia.
  3. REM sleep behavior disorder is when a person acts out their dreams, which can be dangerous and also disturb other individuals’ sleep who reside in the same household. These people don’t enter a paralysis state like most of us do when in the REM sleep phase. 
  4. Sleep apnea is characterized by shallow breaths or pauses in breathing during sleep, which can wake you up suddenly. There are a few specific types of sleep apnea including obstructive sleep apnea (which occurs when your airway is blocked), central sleep apnea (which occurs when your brain fails to tell your body to breathe), and complex sleep apnea (which is a combination of the former two). 
  5. Narcolepsy is excessive sleepiness or drowsiness during the day. People with narcolepsy have “sleep attacks” at random and struggle to stay awake. 

What causes sleep disorders?

As with many conditions, the causes of sleep disorders aren’t so clear-cut. The cause(s) can vary from one sleep disorder to the next as well as one person to the next. Additionally, often the cause isn’t known.

That said, here are a few common causes of sleep disorders:

  • Bedtime habits: Something as simple as poor sleep hygiene can cause sleep disturbances like insomnia. Sleep hygiene means creating the proper environment for sleeping as well as implementing a nighttime routine that supports restful sleep. A few bad bedtime habits include eating late at night, scrolling through social media in bed, and drinking alcohol or caffeine too close to the time you plan to go to sleep.
  • Chronic pain: Chronic or long-standing pain can make it difficult to sleep each night (insomnia). For example, people with arthritis, which is characterized by swollen or stiff joints, might struggle to relax or get comfortable enough to fall asleep. Their pain might also wake them up at night. 
  • Chemicals in the brain: A less understood cause of the sleep disorder RLS is an imbalance of dopamine, a brain chemical that’s known as the “feel-good hormone.” Dopamine sends messages that control muscle movement. Thus, when you don’t have enough of it, you have less control over your muscles, which can bleed into your sleep.
  • Excess weight: Being overweight or obese can cause or contribute to the development of the sleep disorder sleep apnea. 
  • Depression and anxiety: Other conditions can also create sleep problems or even lead to a sleep disorder. In depression and anxiety, difficulty sleeping is a primary symptom. 
  • Genetics: And sometimes, you can blame your genetics for your sleep disorder. 

How common are sleep disorders?

According to the American Sleep Association (ASA), around 50-70 million adults in the US have a sleep disorder. Common sleep disorders include those mentioned earlier: insomnia, restless legs syndrome, REM sleep behavior disorder, narcolepsy, and sleep apnea.

So, if you have a diagnosed sleep disorder or you’re experiencing symptoms of a sleep disorder, you’re in good company. Not to mention most (if not all) of us encounter sleep disturbances from time to time. 

Are sleep disorders psychological?

Sleep disorders can be caused by psychological as well as physical problems. It depends on the specific disorder as well as the unique factors at play. For example, an individual may suffer from insomnia as a result of their depression. On the other hand, someone may develop sleep apnea because they are overweight. 

It’s important to note that psychological and physical problems can also be exacerbated by sleep disorders or difficulties. Not getting adequate sleep can create or contribute to a host of problems including stress, mood issues, depression, and anxiety.

What sleep disorders cause nightmares?

Certain sleep disorders like restless legs syndrome and sleep apnea can cause nightmares. However, there is also a distinct sleep disorder that causes recurrent nightmares: appropriately named nightmare disorder, which falls under the parasomnia category of sleep disorders. 

While nightmares are common, nightmare disorder is not. This occurs when nightmares… 

  • Are prevalent
  • Cause distress
  • Disturb one’s sleep
  • Cause daytime sleepiness
  • Interrupt one’s daily functioning
  • Trigger a fear of sleep

How to diagnose sleep disorders

If you are experiencing symptoms of a sleep disorder, talk to your doctor — they can help to identify what’s really going on. In order to do so, they’ll likely ask you to detail your symptoms as well as share relevant information about your medical history and do a physical exam. From there, they might order a test to reach a sure diagnosis. Here are a couple of common sleep tests:

  • Polysomnograms assess one’s oxygen levels, body movements, and brain waves to understand how they might affect his or her sleep. It’s conducted overnight at a sleep center or hospital. Polysomnograms can help to diagnose a range of sleep disorders including sleep apnea and REM behavior disorder.
  • Multiple Sleep Latency Tests are used to assess daytime sleepiness, measuring how quickly an individual falls asleep in a quiet, daytime environment. Multiple Sleep Latency Tests consist of five scheduled naps, each scheduled two hours apart, making them full-day endeavors. They are used to diagnose narcolepsy as well as idiopathic hypersomnia.

How to treat sleep disorders

Sleep disorders can be treated effectively with medical interventions as well as lifestyle changes. Here is a list of common, helpful medical treatments:

  • Medication and/or supplements: Sleeping pills, as well as specific supplements like melatonin, can help you fall and stay asleep at night. Additionally, if your sleep disturbance is caused by an underlying disorder (such as depression), appropriate medication such as an antidepressant can help.
  • Talk therapy: As we mentioned earlier, sometimes sleep disorders are caused or exacerbated by psychological issues. In these instances, talk therapy can be beneficial. For example, again in the case of depression, therapy can help the individual to better manage their symptoms and work to a happier place, thus improving their sleep. 
  • Breathing devices: Certain sleep disorders like sleep apnea can be relieved by breathing devices. For example, a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine uses air pressure to open your throat, allowing air to pass through, reducing snoring, and preventing a major sleep disturbance. 

Often, setting healthy lifestyle habits is recommended in tandem with receiving medical help for sleep disorders. Here are several healthy lifestyle habits you should consider investing in:

  • Improving your diet: Eat more veggies and cut out highly processed foods.
  • Exercise on a regular basis: Go for a walk or jog to manage stress and other difficult emotions that arise.
  • Create a healthy bedtime routine: Keep your bedroom cool, put your phone down 30 minutes (or earlier) before getting into bed, and limit your caffeine intake after 3 pm. 

Remember: Exact treatment will depend on your specific sleep disorder, its symptoms, severity, and more. The first step is to talk to your doctor who can offer appropriate guidance for treatment. 

Table of contents

What are sleep disorders?

What are the 6 types of sleep disorders?

What are the 5 main sleep disorders?

What causes sleep disorders?

How common are sleep disorders?

Are sleep disorders psychological?

What sleep disorders cause nightmares?

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Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett is the senior content strategist at Thriveworks. She received her BA in multimedia journalism with minors in professional writing and leadership from Virginia Tech. She is a co-author of “Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book.”

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