Sleep Disorders: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Medically reviewed by
 Dr. Renske Lok

Dr. Renske Lok

Dr. Renske Lok is a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford and a board member of the SLTBR Conference. Her work focuses on circadian rhythms, light, sleep, performance & alertness.

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Sleep disorders are sleep-related difficulties or conditions that disrupt your normal sleep patterns. If left unchecked, these issues can prevent you from getting enough high-quality sleep. Of course, we have…

Last Updated On November 2nd, 2021
Sleep Disorders: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Sleep disorders are sleep-related difficulties or conditions that disrupt your normal sleep patterns. If left unchecked, these issues can prevent you from getting enough high-quality sleep.

Of course, we have all suffered from a restless night or two at some point in our lives. Work, family, and the usual stressors of life can steal our shut-eye from time to time, and that’s totally normal. With each turn of the calendar page, sleep disruptions can cross the line from a little hiccup in our sleep schedule to something more problematic. If you’re struggling with getting a good night’s sleep, you’re not alone.

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According to the CDC, approximately 70 million Americans Verified Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The United States’ health protection agency that defends against dangers to health and safety. View source suffer from some form of sleep disorder. Moreover, the CDC also reports that one-third of Americans aren't getting enough sleep Verified Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The United States’ health protection agency that defends against dangers to health and safety. View source on a consistent basis. With startling statistics like these, it’s easy to see why they eventually described sleep disorders as an epidemic.

Ahead we’ll take a closer look at a few different types of sleep disorders as well as common symptoms and causes. We’ll also take a quick look at why sleep is so important and offer a brief overview of some typical treatment options.

Common Types of Sleep Disorders

There are more than 80 recognized clinical sleep disorders, but in the interest of clarity, we will only offer a brief overview of some of the more common sleep disturbances.

Insomnia

Insomnia is a sleep disorder Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source where people have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. This sleep disorder can also present itself as early morning waking without the ability to fall back asleep. Acute insomnia (which we all deal with occasionally) is a spell of insomnia that lasts anywhere from one night to a few weeks.

Sleepless nights, however, cross the line into chronic insomnia when the issue occurs at least three nights a week and persists for three months or more.

Common Symptoms of Insomnia

Insomnia is diagnosed based on some of the following symptoms by patients:

  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Early waking
  • Daytime fatigue or sleepiness
  • Poor focus

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes you to stop breathing for short periods of time while you sleep. Alarmingly, sleep apnea can cause you to stop breathing hundreds of times Verified Source Harvard Health Blog run by Harvard Medical School offering in-depth guides to better health and articles on medical breakthroughs. View source each night, but the bad news doesn’t stop there. If left untreated, sleep apnea can also lead Verified Source Harvard Health Blog run by Harvard Medical School offering in-depth guides to better health and articles on medical breakthroughs. View source to hypertension, stroke, diabetes, or even a heart attack.

Common Symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea

  • Snoring
  • Daytime tiredness or fatigue
  • Restless sleep
  • Frequent waking
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Irritability

Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source marked by sudden episodes of deep sleep (often at inappropriate times) and excessive daytime sleepiness. Narcolepsy usually makes its appearance in childhood or young adulthood and is thought to be caused by a lack of a brain chemical called hypocretin (orexin).

While sleepiness is often associated with narcolepsy, Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source such as emotionally triggered cataplexy and hallucinations. Although we must not that cataplexy can also occur without Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source narcolepsy.

While there is no cure for this sleep disorder, you can work with your doctor to manage the symptoms and minimize the impact of narcolepsy on your daily life.

Commons Symptoms of Narcolepsy

  • Persistent and excessive daytime sleepiness Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source
  • Cataplexy (a sudden loss of muscle tone or sudden muscle weakness brought on by a strong emotional trigger)
  • Sleep paralysis
  • Hallucinations

Parasomnia

Parasomnia is an umbrella term that refers to a group of unusual behaviors people experience either before they fall asleep, while they’re sleeping, or as they’re waking from sleep.

Common Types of Parasomnias

  • Sleepwalking
  • Night terrors
  • Sleep paralysis
  • Sleep talking
  • REM sleep behavior disorder Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source

Restless Leg Syndrome

Also known as Willis-Ekbom disease Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source restless leg syndrome is a movement disorder characterized by an overwhelming urge to move your legs when you are resting. Those who suffer from RLS tend to feel an uncomfortable sensation in their legs and while moving about seems to relieve the discomfort, the effects are often just temporary.

Common Symptoms of Restless Leg Syndrome

  • A creeping or crawling sensation in the feet, legs, and thighs
  • An irresistible urge to move
  • Tossing and turning
  • Symptoms worsen at night

Why Is Sleep So Important?

Although the exact function of sleep is still unknown, Dr. Renske Lok notes the there are three hypotheses on why we sleep:

  1. Energy conservation theory (sleep saves calories)
  2. Brain plasticity theory (sleep is when we disregard information that has been gathered during the day, but we do not need)
  3. Restoration theory (sleep is when we repair and replete cellular components necessary for biological functions)

Our bodies (and our brains) require an adequate amount of sleep to operate at peak performance. When we go to sleep, our bodies go into active repair mode and essentially perform a bit of biological “housekeeping,” so to speak. Those processes and functions include:

  • Sorting and processing information from the day
  • Forming memories
  • Releasing the hormones and proteins your body needs to repair itself and fight disease or illness

With so much going on while we sleep, it’s easy to see why getting enough sleep is so important. The amount of sleep we need changes throughout our lives, and while the CDC lists Verified Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The United States’ health protection agency that defends against dangers to health and safety. View source recommended hours of sleep by age groups, individuals in the same age groups will still have different sleep needs. Grabbing less sleep than you need for an extended period of time can and will take a toll on your physical and mental health.

Over the short term, inadequate sleep can affect your mood, judgment,reduce feelings of vitality, physical and mental performance, and ability to learn and retain information. Over time, insufficient sleep can lead to more serious health issues Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

What Are the Symptoms of Sleep Disorders?

While each sleep disorder is characterized by its own set of symptoms, sleep disorders, on the whole, tend to share a few overarching themes.

Some common symptoms of sleep disorders include:

  • Sleepiness during the day/daytime fatigue
  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Poor concentration/lack of focus
  • Eventful sleep or rest periods
  • Poor job performance

What Causes Sleep Disorders?

Sleep disorders can be caused by a wide range of physical and emotional issues, and there is no one size fits all answer to this question. Very often, however, underlying medical issues, chronic stress, and sometimes even your genetics could be contributing factors. Let’s take a look at some of the most common causes of sleep disorders.

Chronic Pain

If you’ve ever tried to catch some shut-eye when you’re in pain, you probably know that sleep can be hard to come by when you’re not feeling your best. And as expected, study Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source after study shows Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source a deep correlation between sleep disorders and pain.

Dr. Renske Lok explains, “Pain is a sensation you feel when nerves are stimulated to an intense degree, which activates the brain and keeps you awake.”

Stress/Anxiety

It’s no secret that sleep and mood are inextricably linked. Poor or inadequate sleep can affect your mood and stress levels. To further illustrate this point, we can look at one sleep study Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.

In this study, researchers found that subjects limited to 4.5 hours of sleep for just one week reported increased stress, anger, and mental exhaustion. Once they resumed their regular sleep schedule, the participants noted a dramatic improvement in their mood.

The opposite also holds true: heightened stress levels and anxiety can lead to poor or inadequate sleep.

Depression

Like stress and anxiety, depression also has a cause-and-effect relationship with sleep. On the one hand, depression can lead Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source to sleep disorders like insomnia, and on the other hand, chronic sleep disorders can lead to depression. Moreover, one of the symptoms of depression is either increased or decreased amounts of sleep, further indicating a relationship between the two.

Genetics

We already know that environmental factors have a heavy hand in our quality of sleep, but researchers have also discovered that your genes might also play a role in how well you sleep.

One groundbreaking study showed that sleep disorders, specifically insomnia, are, in fact, partially heritable. While another study showed that our propensity to be good or bad sleepers could be genetically predetermined. Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source

All of this to say, if you decide to see your doctor about a potential sleep disorder, asking a few questions and knowing your family history may not be a bad idea.

Medications

While certain medications may be infinitely helpful for managing chronic health conditions, it’s important to know that your pain medication could also be messing with your sleep. From nasal decongestants to statins for your cholesterol and from high blood pressure meds (or beta-blockers Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source ) to antidepressants Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source medications can have a profound effect on your quantity and quality of sleep.

Aging

Sleep disturbances are fairly common in older adults. So much so that there’s a common misconception that the older you get, the less sleep you need. Our sleep needs are highly individualistic, so it’s difficult to give an exact number when it comes to recommended hours of sleep. However, as we age, sleep tends to be less deep with more frequent wakings.

Dr. Lok adds, “Sleep and wake patterns become more erratic, with short bouts of sleep and wakefulness alternating during night and daytime.” Moreover, older adults are far more likely to deal with chronic pain and diseases requiring medication.

How Are Sleep Disorders Diagnosed?

Like any other medical issue, the diagnosis of a sleep disorder begins with a visit to your doctor and a physical exam. If your issues and concerns are beyond their capabilities, then they should be able to offer some advice (or a referral) for the next steps.

Physical Exam

While doctors cannot conclusively diagnose a sleep disorder solely by a physical examination, they’re still a good starting point when you’re ready to figure out what’s disrupting your sleep. Your doctor might be able to help you manage chronic pain or the acid reflux that’s keeping you up at night. Additionally, they can review your medications to determine if that’s the culprit and adjust your dosage or make a switch if need be.

Sleep Diary

Just as it sounds, a sleep diary is simply a log of how well or how poorly you sleep. Usually recorded over a one to two-week period, a sleep diary requires you to log how many hours per night, how often you wake up, how you feel upon waking, etc. After you complete your sleep diary, your doctor will examine the data and discuss the results with you to determine the next steps.

Polysomnogram

Also known as a sleep study, Verified Source Medline Plus Online resource offered by the National Library of Medicine and part of the National Institutes of Health. View source a polysomnogram Verified Source Medline Plus Online resource offered by the National Library of Medicine and part of the National Institutes of Health. View source is a test used to diagnose sleep disorders. Typically conducted in a hospital or sleep center, polysomnography monitors and records your heart rate, breathing, brain waves, and eye and leg movements while you sleep. This comprehensive test can not only help diagnose a potential sleep disorder, but it can also help doctors create a solid treatment plan for you.

Questions Your Healthcare Provider May Ask

Once you decide to see your doctor, it’s important that you provide as much information as you can so that they can better help you.

Think about the following leading up to your appointment:

  • How long does it take you to fall asleep?
  • Do you typically wake up during the night?
  • How many hours of sleep do you get each night?
  • Do you take naps?

Dr. Renske Lok notes that sleep disorders are typically diagnosed through a combination of subjective questions like these and polysomnography measurements. Sometimes the results of a sleep study are not conclusive, so such a series of questions may be needed to reach a diagnosis.

How are Sleep Disorders Treated?

Just as the symptoms differ between specific sleep disorders, so too do the treatments. You may find, however, that the treatment options for insomnia would likely include the following:

Lifestyle Changes

If your sleep disorder is not caused by a more serious medical condition, lifestyle changes can be a helpful way to get your sleep back in line. This approach can be as easy as making a few changes to your diet and exercise plan, or it could require something more challenging like effective stress management.

Improved Sleep Hygiene

In some cases, your treatment plan may require a few changes to your bedtime routine. These changes can include:

  • Managing ambient noise and light in your bedroom
  • Lowering the temperature in your room at night
  • Maintaining a consistent sleep/wake schedule
  • Limiting screen time before bed
  • Avoiding caffeine in the evening and large meals before bed
  • Minimizing light exposure during the evening

Counseling

Counseling or cognitive behavioral therapy is another treatment often recommended for the treatment of sleep disorders. This type of therapy can be done individually, in a group setting,  or even online. Patients should be aware, however, that counseling is typically not a quick cure for what ails them. Counseling can take some time. The length of your treatment will ultimately depend on the type of sleeping disorder you’re dealing with and the severity of the condition.

When to See a Doctor

Everyone experiences a spell of sleepless nights from time to time, but prolonged issues could signify something bigger. If you find that your sleepless nights last longer than three to four weeks, or you’re experiencing any of the symptoms we’ve covered in this article, it may be time to schedule an appointment.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main sleep disorders?

Common sleeping disorders include insomnia, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, and narcolepsy. Insomnia, restless legs syndrome, and narcolepsy can affect how long it takes you to fall asleep, while sleep apnea can adversely impact your quality of sleep.

There are also parasomnias, defined as abnormal behaviors during sleep. Some parasomnias are sleepwalking, sleep paralysis, teeth grinding, and REM sleep behavior disorder.

What can cause sleep disorders?

Sleep disorders have a wide range of potential causes, from an underlying medical condition like heart disease, a mental illness or genetic factors, to more controllable factors such as an irregular schedule, too much consumption of caffeine, or environmental factors (light and noise exposure) that create an uncomfortable sleeping area.

Naturally, the exact sleep disorder you have determines what causes you should consider. We recommend speaking with your doctor or a sleep specialist to narrow down your list of potential causes and set up a treatment plan.

What is REM sleep behavior disorder?

REM sleep behavior disorder is characterized by nightmares associated with simple or complex motor behavior during REM sleep. In other words, people with this disorder act out their often frightening dreams. This disorder can worsen with time and is often associated with other disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease.

What is the sleeping beauty syndrome?

Sleeping beauty syndrome Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source is a colloquial term for Kleine–Levin syndrome (KLS), a rare sleep disorder. This disorder primarily affects adolescent males and is characterized by recurring but reversible periods of hypersomnia, along with other symptoms. There is no definitive treatment for Kleine-Levin syndrome Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source though certain medications may be prescribed.

How do you fix sleep disorders?

Some sleep disorders can be managed by simply improving your sleep hygiene. Potential improvements can include limiting your caffeine intake, setting up your bedroom for better sleep, minimizing light exposure in the evening, and sticking to the same sleep-wake schedule every day.

Other sleep disorders may require medication or even surgery. We strongly recommend speaking with your doctor about potential treatments.

Conclusion

Getting enough sleep on a consistent basis is incredibly important for both your physical and emotional health. There can be serious long-term consequences to sleep deprivation, after all. When sleep continues to elude you despite your best efforts to get some shut-eye, that could be a sign of a sleep disorder.

That said, with over 80 different possibilities, you may need a little help to get to the root of the problem. Your doctor can help you figure out what’s keeping you up at night, and devise a treatment plan to get you back on track.


About the author

Sharon Brandwein is a freelance writer specializing in beauty, lifestyle, and sleep content. Her work has also appeared on ABC News, USAToday, and Forbes. When she’s not busy writing, you might find her somewhere curating a wardrobe for her puppy.

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