Signs & Common Types Of Sleep Disorders

In order for our bodies and minds to function properly, it is imperative that we get a good night’s sleep.  The average adult needs between 7 and 9 hours of UNINTERRUPTED sleep each and every night in order to maintain optimal mental and physical health.

It is estimated that over 40 million people in the U.S. will suffer from some form of sleep disorder but many go undiagnosed and untreated.  Not being properly treated for a sleep disorder can be hazardous to your own health and to others around you.

There are signs that can warn a person whether or not they suffer from sleep disorders.  Some of these signs are:

  • Feeling sleepy or irritable throughout the day.
  • Difficulty staying awake when sitting still, reading, or watching TV.
  • Falling asleep while driving.
  • Work or school performance is below average.
  • Told often by others that you look tired.
  • Have trouble with your memory.
  • Slow reaction times.
  • Emotional outbursts.
  • Feel the need to nap almost daily.
  • Need to drink caffeine in order to keep going.


Types of Sleep Disorders

There are actually more than 100 sleep disorders that can cause the above symptoms, but the four most common types are insomnia, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, & narcolepsy.


Insomnia, which is a significant lack of quality sleep, can be either short-term or chronic. There are many factors that can cause insomnia: health conditions, stress, time zone changes, and poor sleep habits. Symptoms of insomnia include:

  • A difficulty staying asleep even though the person may be extremely tired.
  • The need for sleeping pills or alcohol in order to go to sleep.
  • Waking up frequently throughout the night or remaining awake.
  • Waking up too early in the morning without feeling refreshed.
  • Daytime drowsiness, irritability & fatigue.

Insomnia can be helped by seeing your physician, reducing stress, learning proper sleep hygiene, and relaxation exercises.

For people with certain chronic illnesses (such as CFS & Fibromyalgia), it’s not that simple because with these illnesses the body seems to have control over when we do and do not sleep.  Typically prescription sleep medication is required in order for us to have any type of normal sleep pattern, and that doesn’t always work either.


Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder where the person will stop breathing, or the breathing becomes very shallow. This disorder can be life threatening. With sleep apnea, the pause in breathing can be anywhere from 10 – 20 seconds or longer and can occur anywhere from 20 – 30 times in an hour. There are actually three types of sleep apnea: obstructive, central & mixed.

Symptoms & What Happens In Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common form, is when during sleep enough air is not able to get to the lungs through the mouth & nose. This causes the amount of oxygen in the blood to drop. The normal breaths will start again with a loud choke or snorting sound where the person will awaken feeling like they are choking or gasping for air.

Before my husband had his triple bypass heart surgery almost 11 years ago, he would stop breathing quite frequently.  I would be afraid to go to sleep because I was afraid that if I was not awake to jerk him when he stopped breathing that he would die.  Once he had his heart surgery though it stopped for him.

People with sleep apnea will experience what I talked about above and also will feel unrefreshed the next day, will have headaches, sore throat, dry mouth, & daytime sleepiness.

Causes of Sleep Apnea

Some causes & risk factors of sleep apnea include:

  • Overweight/obesity
  • Snoring
  • Smoking
  • Family history
  • Medical disorders/syndromes/conditions
  • Shape of head & neck

Treating Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is diagnosed by having a sleep study done where a sleep specialist watches your pattern of sleep during the night. Have your spouse or partner keep a sleep diary for you to record your symptoms (how many times you stop breathing, gasp, choke, etc.) throughout the night. If you are alone or your spouse doesn’t want to be up all night, tape yourself and take your findings to the doctor.

CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) is used to treat sleep apnea. CPAP is a mask-like device you wear while you sleep that supplies pressurized air, which helps prevent the airway from collapsing.


Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless Legs Syndrome is a sensory disorder causing an almost irresistible urge to move the legs. The urge to move the legs is usually due to uncomfortable, tingly, or creeping sensations that occur when at rest. Movement eases the feelings, but only for a while. Restless Legs Syndrome affects approximately 10% of adults.

RLS doesn’t necessarily have to occur just at bedtime, but that is when most people seem to be affected. Symptoms will often occur when you are in a resting or relaxed state, so if you are resting or napping during the day your RLS can act up.

Restless Legs Syndrome can be very frustrating because I will notice myself at times just when I’m about to drift off to sleep, my legs and feet will start jumping. Sometimes I have to get into some pretty awkward (and unladylike!) positions in order to get some relief.

Causes of Restless Legs Syndrome

There are many things that can cause RLS. Some of these include:

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Pregnancy
  • Thyroid problems
  • Varicose veins
  • Sleep apnea
  • Narcolepsy
  • Certain medications
  • Diabetes
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Kidney failure
  • Neurologic lesions
  • Anemia
  • Other medical conditions

Medications for RLS

There are different medications that can be used to treat RLS: anticonvulsants, narcotics, sleep medications, non-benzodiazepine sedatives, & dopaminergic agents.



Narcolepsy is a sleeping disorder where a person will have trouble staying awake.  When someone has narcolepsy, they will just suddenly fall asleep – in the middle of whatever they are doing.  This is a very dangerous sleep disorder to have – for the person with the problem and for others around them.  People with narcolepsy will have sleep attacks even after getting a full night’s sleep.  They will fall asleep while driving, walking, cooking, etc.

Symptoms of Narcolepsy

Symptoms of narcolepsy include:

  • Intermittent, uncontrollable episodes of falling asleep during the daytime
  • Sudden, short-lived loss of muscle control during emotional situations (cataplexy)
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Hallucinations
  • Nighttime waking

Causes of Narcolepsy

Researchers believe that the causes of narcolepsy are genetics and possibly an environmental trigger like a virus.  It has also recently been discovered that people with narcolepsy have a lack of a chemical in the brain called hypocretin.  Hypocretin activates arousal and regulates sleep.

Treatment for Narcolepsy

Diagnosing narcolepsy can take as long as a year or more because the symptoms mimic that of other sleep disorders and psychiatric illnesses. Narcolepsy is diagnosed by symptoms and several types of sleep tests.

Treating narcolepsy requires a combination of medication, counseling, and behavioral changes. Medications used to treat narcolepsy include antidepressants, stimulants and sodium oxybate.