Reviewed by Melinda (Santa) Gladden, LCSW
Sleep is one of the most important things for the body. When well-rested, people are more active and more alert, leading to a better quality of life. However, some people lie awake at night, unable to close their eyes and rest or remain drowsy during the day. Why? What makes some people unable to feel as rested as they should or unable to get the rest they need? If you face some trouble related to sleep, then you might be suffering from a sleep disorder.
What are the most common sleep disorders?
How many sleep disorders are there? While one or two might come to mind immediately, they are not the only ones. What are the five major sleep disorders? The five most common sleep disorders have been listed below, and their potential symptoms and causes have been included.
This sleep disorders list is not meant to be used as a diagnostic tool but rather an informative introduction. While reading, if you believe that you might suffer from a sleep disorder, contact your doctor to further discuss your concerns. They will be able to provide guidance and recommend a provider who specializes in sleep.
5 Most Common Sleep Disorders
Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder
Affecting 33% of adults, insomnia is most likely the first sleep disorder that individuals think about. It is the most common sleep disorder, so its immediate association with sleep disorders is expected. Insomnia is the inability to fall asleep, the inability to stay asleep, or getting sleep but not getting quality sleep.
Many things can cause insomnia, and it frequently is a symptom of another condition. Some frequent causes of insomnia are:
- Drinking, eating, or taking substances that keep you awake such as caffeine, cold medicine, alcohol, or heavy smoking
- Using electronic devices in bed
- Going to sleep at inconsistent times each night
- Not exercising enough
- Sleeping in a location with too much noise or light
- Taking naps during the day
Insomnia can also be caused by certain conditions such as:
- Sleep apnea
- Bipolar disorder
- Excessive stress (which can be combined with the stress of not being able to fall asleep)
- Nighttime visits to the bathroom
Insomnia can be classified into two categories.
- Chronic insomnia occurs when the individual experiences symptoms three times per week for at least three months.
- Those with short-term insomnia experience symptoms for three months or less.
As stated before, insomnia can be either the inability to fall asleep or the inability to stay asleep, and these are two separate categories of insomnia.
- Sleep-onset insomnia is the inability to fall asleep. Those with sleep-onset insomnia might be unable to “turn off” their brains, may be experiencing something like long-term jet-lag, or the body just might not think it is a proper time to sleep.
- Sleep maintenance insomnia is when an individual is unable to stay asleep for a long time. The person might alternatively drift in and out of sleep throughout the night, waking up multiple times.
Those struggling with insomnia usually experience disruption of their daytime routine or behavior due to the sleep disorder. These disruptions might include mood changes, drowsiness or fatigue, difficulty concentrating, difficulty remembering things, irritability, aggression, or hyperactivity.
Narcolepsy is one of the most common sleep disorders
Another sleep disorder is narcolepsy, when individuals might fall asleep at random times during the day against their will. Someone experiencing narcolepsy might feel completely rested immediately after waking up before feeling drowsy and tired the rest of the day onward. They might fall asleep at dangerous or inappropriate times, such as at work or even while driving, or they could experience muscle weakness, which could leave them unable to move. Hallucinations might also occur and sleep paralysis, which is when someone awakens but cannot move. An additional potential symptom is a change to the REM cycle or entering REM too quickly.
Those who experience narcolepsy with the previously mentioned symptom of muscle weakness have type 1 narcolepsy. The muscle weakness is known as cataplexy, and those who do not experience cataplexy but have other symptoms of narcolepsy might have type 2 narcolepsy.
Cataplexy is a condition of its own, and it should be monitored. It is often triggered by emotional responses, such as intense joy or anger. This can lead to those with the condition to withdraw from family and friends to avoid triggering the muscle weakness.
Doctors are not sure what causes narcolepsy, but research suggests that those with type 1 narcolepsy do not have the typical hypocrite levels in their brains, which is a chemical that regulates wakefulness and REM sleep. Genetics plays a part in narcolepsy, but it is uncommon for a child to inherit a parent's trait as it happens in only 1% of scenarios. However, there is a strong familial pattern to narcolepsy as those with individuals in their families who have the condition are 20 to 40 times more likely to also have narcolepsy.
If you believe you or a loved one might be suffering from narcolepsy, taking this short quiz can offer you some insight. The quiz is not a diagnostic tool and should only be used to determine if it is necessary or a good idea to approach a medical professional about potentially having a sleep disorder.
- Restless Legs Syndrome
Also referred to as Willis-Ekbom Disease, restless legs syndrome (RLS) is classified as a sleep disorder. It can disrupt the ability to sleep, but its symptoms are not limited to nighttime occurrences. Individuals might experience uncomfortable sensations in their legs and feel an irresistible urge to move them to relieve the discomfort. The sensations are typically described as aching, throbbing, or itching. While moving their legs will make the feelings stop, they can sometimes start again immediately after the movement stops, making it only a temporary fix. Over time, symptoms of RLS typically worsen, making it important to seek medical guidance early.
Symptoms of RSL typically occur in the later hours of the day, which can make falling asleep difficult. This combines with the fact that RSL can usually cause discomfort during the day when the person with the condition is at rest for long periods, such as sitting on a plane or in a car. If the person has been resting in bed for a long period at night, then the symptoms are even more likely to occur, making sleep even more difficult.
Around 7-10% of people in the US might have RSL, and the likelihood of having the condition increases when individuals also have one of these conditions:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Use of caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol
- Iron deficiency
Not getting enough sleep can also increase symptoms, making it a difficult condition to manage. The sleep deprivation caused by RSL can lead to mood swings irritability and decreased productivity in work. A person’s ability to concentrate is also affected by the lack of sleep.
- Sleep Apnea
About 26% of adults in the US suffer from sleep apnea. It can affect both children and teenagers, but it is more common in adults. Sleep apnea is usually characterized by strange breathing while sleeping, and there are three types of the condition:
- Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
- Central sleep apnea (CSA)
- Mixed sleep apnea
Those with OSA experience their airways being physically blocked. Individuals with CSA have an issue with their brains, causing it to “forget” how to control the muscles involved in breathing, leading to deep breaths becoming slower and more difficult. Mixed sleep apnea occurs when people have a mixture of both of the previously mentioned sleep apnea types.
Although snoring is not a sure sign of sleep apnea, those with sleep apnea might display increased snoring habits as well as begin to gasp in their sleep. Potential symptoms of sleep apnea also include:
- Daytime drowsiness
- Dry mouth when waking up.
- Headaches when waking up
- Impaired concentration and memory
- Frequent nighttime trips to the bathroom
Research suggests that pre-existing conditions such as premature birth, kidney or heart failure, large tonsils, and obesity can cause sleep apnea. However, genetics can also play a part in developing sleep apnea.
Not to be confused with insomnia, parasomnia is an umbrella term meant to encompass several strange behaviors that people might exhibit while sleeping. Potential parasomnia symptoms have been separated into three categories:
- NREM-Related Parasomnia
- REM-Related Parasomnia
Some behaviors that could be exhibited when someone experiences NREM-Related parasomnia are:
- Confusional Arousal
- The display of confusing behaviors while in bed and apparently sleeping
- Night Terrors
- These are not to be mistaken for nightmares, which are normal experiences. Night terrors are episodes of intense fear that last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. When experiencing a night terror, the person might sit up out of fear, have an increased heart rate, and even scream. They typically won’t remember the cause of their fear.
- Sexual behaviors while asleep (“sexsomnia”)
- For example, masturbating while asleep or even trying to begin sexual intercourse.
Those experiencing REM-Related parasomnia might exhibit signs of:
- REM Sleep Behavior Disorder (RSBD)
- Strange vocal responses (typically to a dream) or unusual physical movements. People 50 and above most commonly show signs of this symptom.
- Sleep Paralysis
- Nightmare Disorder
- Once again, everyone has nightmares from time to time, but this disorder is typically present when a person has frequent nightmares that happen often and are similar. These nightmares typically threaten their safety or their survival and have an adverse effect on their daytime living.
Not everyone who experiences parasomnia will show signs of any of the parasomnia symptoms that have been listed above. These specific symptoms listed below still might qualify as symptoms of parasomnia:
- Exploding Head Syndrome
- This is when a person wakes up and feels an explosion in their head or hears a loud explosion. They might also see a bright light when they first wake up. This is painless, but it can leave an individual with a racing heart and understandable anxiety. These episodes are also known as sensory sleep starts, and a person can have multiple episodes each night.
- Sleep Enuresis
- This is nighttime bedwetting. To be considered a potential symptom of parasomnia, the individual must be older than five years old and happen at least twice a week for at least three months.
Sleeping disorders seem daunting to tackle, but if you believe you or a loved one might have a sleeping disorder after reading this list, then contacting your medical provider could give more clarity and answers for your troubles. With guidance and an informed approach, sleeping disorders are manageable and treatable.
Treating the Most Common Sleep Disorders
There are many options for treating sleep disorders; a variety of medication, self-care techniques/tips, as well as psychotherapy will allow people to find the cause of some of the sleeping disorders. If you feel as if you might have a sleep disorder, take this online test for more information.