5 Sleep Disorders: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Sleep is essential. A good night’s sleep is important in order to function well during the day. However, a number of sleep disorders can affect how much rest a person gets.

Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night. There are adverse effects for mental and physical health, quality of life and safety if they don’t get enough good sleep.

That said, sleep disturbances are common. Experts estimate that no less than 70 million adults in the United States have sleep disorders and sleepiness problems.

There are many different sleep disorders. The four general categories of sleep disorders are as follows:

  • trouble falling asleep and staying asleep
  • difficulty staying awake
  • problems with sleep-wake schedule
  • unusual behavior during sleep

however, the International Classification of Sleep Disorders, Third Edition (ICSD-3) is the main clinical text for the diagnosis and categorization of sleep disorders. The ICSD-3 groups sleep disorders into six main categories instead of four.

This article takes a look at five sleep disorders, including their causes, symptoms, and possible treatment options.

Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, with about 10% of adults experiencing short-term problems. About 20% of short-term cases become chronic. In addition, 30-40% of adults have acute or occasional insomnia.

Having insomnia can mean that a person has trouble falling asleep, wakes up frequently, or wakes up too early and can’t fall back asleep. It is also important to note that to be diagnosed with insomnia, a person must also have adequate time to sleep and have symptoms during the day.

A doctor can diagnose chronic insomnia if a person’s sleep problems occur on 3 nights a week for at least a month.


Insomnia has several causes. In some cases, there is a genetic component.

An example of this is fatal familial insomnia, a rare genetic brain disorder that runs in families. The condition causes insomnia so severe that it becomes life-threatening.

Some other more typical causes of comorbid insomnia include:

  • alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and drug use
  • stress, anxiety and other mental illness
  • health problems that cause pain, discomfort or frequent toilet visits
  • some medical conditions


The most effective treatment for comorbid insomnia depends on the cause and whether it is a chronic problem or not.

A doctor should address any underlying health issues as well as the insomnia itself to help with one’s sleep problems.

An important part of insomnia treatment is teaching individuals about: sleep hygiene. Good sleep hygiene includes:

  • have a regular sleep schedule
  • following a nighttime routine
  • relax before going to sleep
  • reducing caffeine and alcohol consumption
  • being physically active during the day, if possible

Snoring occurs when the tissues in a person’s throat relax and partially close off the airways. The tissues then vibrate as the individual breathes, creating the characteristic snoring sound.

In obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a person experiences irregular breathing during sleep, which can cause them to stop breathing for 10 seconds or more.

The multiple long pauses in breath lead to a decrease in oxygen in the blood, resulting in multiple wakes during the night. This can lead to poor quality sleep and other health consequences.


Snoring and OSA appear to be related. Most people with OSA snore. However, not everyone who snores has OSA.

Some causes of snoring and OSA are:

  • head and neck anatomy
  • chronic stuffy nose
  • obesity
  • sleeping position
  • aging
  • hypothyroidism

Central sleep apnea (CSA) is a condition that causes pauses in breathing due to a lack of breathing effort during sleep.

Unlike OSA, these pauses in breathing are mainly due to the lack of activation of the respiratory muscles or to the brain not asking the respiratory muscles to activate.

Experts often link CSA to an underlying health condition, such as stroke or heart failure, medication use, or living at high altitudes. Sometimes it can even be a primary problem.


If a person has sleep apnea symptoms or snoring, they should talk to a doctor to find the underlying cause.

The doctor may recommend a nighttime sleep study called polysomnography, or a home sleep study. Both study types analyze the individual’s sleep and breathing.

Some treatments Involving:

  • using a continuous positive airway pressure machine to keep the airways open during sleep
  • lose weight, if applicable
  • using a mandibular advancement device to prevent the tissues of the mouth from blocking the airways
  • address any underlying medical causes

If a person has parasomnia, they experience unusual sleep behaviors or events that take place during specific sleep stages or during the transition between sleep and wakefulness.

They are parasomnias more typical during childhood, but some can persist into adulthood.

Some common ways to categorize parasomnias are related to random eye movements (REM) and non-REM related.

REM-related parasomnias include REM behavior disorder and nightmare disorder.

Non-REM related parasomnias include:

  • sleepwalking
  • wake up confused
  • nightmares
  • sleep-related unusual sexual behavior
  • sleep-related eating disorder

Some other notable parasomnias include:

  • exploding head syndrome
  • sleep paralysis
  • sleep-related hallucinations
  • wetting the bed

Any unusual behavior a person exhibits during sleep could be a parasomnia.

A doctor must take a detailed medical history, perform a physical exam and, in some cases, perform a sleep study in a lab to make an accurate diagnosis.


There are several possible causes of parasomnia. A person may have multiple triggers, including:


A doctor may need to address the underlying cause of parasomnia or use other treatmentssome of which include:

  • maintaining good sleep hygiene
  • taking safety precautions, such as locking windows and using door alarms in case of sleepwalking
  • taking prescription medications, such as clonazepam
  • using over-the-counter supplements, such as melatonin?

If a person has narcolepsy, they are excessively sleepy during the day and may fall asleep at inappropriate times, such as while working or driving.

About 10-25% of people with narcolepsy also experience the following symptoms:

  • Cataplexy: This sudden loss of muscle tone means that a person can physically collapse but remain conscious. It often happens in response to a strong emotion, such as excitement, laughter, or surprise.
  • Sleep paralysis: This means that a person is unable to move upon waking or falling asleep, but they are fully alert.
  • Hypnagogic Hallucinations: This means that a person experiences hallucinations while falling asleep, but they are also alert. These hallucinations, which resemble dreams, are often frightening and may involve visual, auditory, or tactile sensations.

Narcolepsy that occurs with cataplexy is called type 1 narcolepsy. If a person does not have cataplexy, he has type 2 narcolepsy.


Type 1 narcolepsy is linked to low levels of a brain chemical called hypocretin. This chemical helps people stay awake and maintain muscle tone.

Type 2 narcolepsy causes many of the same symptoms as type 1 narcolepsy. However, type 2 narcolepsy is not associated with cataplexy or low levels of hypocretin.


Narcolepsy is currently incurable, but doctors can treat it with certain medications. Some medications for narcolepsy include:

  • stimulants, which can help keep the individual awake during the day
  • oxybates, such as Xyrem (sodium oxybate) and Xywav (sodium oxybate), to improve sleep quality, daytime sleepiness, and cataplexy
  • alarming antidepressants (off-label use), such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, to aid in cataplexy
  • histamine-activating medications, such as pitolisant (Wakix), to address drowsiness and cataplexy

Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder that is common in women and gradually worsens with age. It causes uncontrollable urges to move the legs because they feel uncomfortable.

A person may experience pain, burning, tingling, throbbing, or a sensation of insects crawling over the legs. The symptoms usually occur in the evenings when a person is resting, falling asleep, or sleeping.

RLS can affect a person’s sleep quality because it causes them to wake up constantly during the night.


Some possible causes of RLS include:

  • iron deficiency
  • pregnancy
  • obesity
  • use of alcohol, nicotine and caffeine
  • the use of certain medications and supplements


A doctor should treat any underlying conditions, such as iron deficiency, to help relieve the symptoms of RLS.

If a person does not have an underlying medical condition, the doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, if appropriate.

A person may also need to take medications, such as:

  • Gabapentinoids: These include gabapentin (Neurontin), pregablin (Lyrica), and gabapentin enacabril (Horizant). Experts now consider gabapentinoids as the first-line medical therapy for RLS.
  • Dopaminergic agents: These include pramipexole (Mirapex) and ropinirole (Requip). They increase dopamine in the brain and are now second-line agents in medical therapy for RLS.
  • opioids: Doctors usually reserve these very serious cases.

If a person is experiencing RLS, moving the legs often helps to relieve the sensations. People can also try stretching, walking, or massaging their legs to relieve symptoms.

Several sleep disorders can compromise the integrity of a person’s sleep and affect quality of life.

Sleep is essential to health, so anyone who has sleep problems should talk to a doctor to determine next steps.

A range of underlying medical conditions can affect a person’s sleep, and a doctor can help diagnose them and suggest appropriate treatments.

5 Sleep Disorders: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to top