Getting enough sleep is one of the most important things we can do to maintain our health. But sometimes sleeping is easier said than done. In this article we explore the most common sleep disorders, including what they are, how to treat them and when to seek help.
What is a sleep disorder?
A sleep disorder is a condition that makes it difficult to get restful sleep on a regular basis. Sleep disorders can affect both the quality and quantity of a person’s sleep, causing a range of symptoms including excessive daytime sleepiness, persistent difficulty falling or staying asleep, and irregular breathing or movement during sleep.
Common sleep disorders
Below we discuss four common sleep disorders.
Insomnia is a sleep disorder where a person regularly finds it difficult to get to sleep or stay asleep. It is one of the most common sleeping disorders, with around 10% of people having at least mild insomnia at any given time.
Insomnia can be caused by:
- Certain types of medication or drugs such as alcohol and caffeine
- Anxiety and depression
- Chronic pain or other illnesses that make sleeping difficult
- Excessive stress
- Poor sleep habits.
Because of its ability to interfere with sleep quality, insomnia can cause excessive daytime sleepiness, difficulty concentrating or remembering things, and mood swings.
Treatments for insomnia typically involve improving your sleeping habits, and treating the underlying cause e.g. seeking help for existing mental health conditions. In the case of primary insomnia—where there is no clear underlying cause—cognitive-behavioural therapy for insomnia may also be beneficial.
2. Obstructive sleep apnoea
Obstructive sleep apnoea is a sleep disorder that affects a person’s ability to breathe freely, resulting in breathing stopping and starting during the night. It is the most common form of sleep apnoea and occurs when a person’s throat is partially or fully blocked during sleep—usually as a result of relaxed throat muscles. This obstruction causes the sufferer to stop breathing momentarily and wake up, sometimes many times in a night.
Common symptoms of obstructive sleep apnoea include snoring, pauses in breathing while sleeping which may be noticed by others, and daytime tiredness.
Mild sleep apnoea can typically be treated with lifestyle changes, such as sleeping on your side, losing weight (if you’re overweight) and reducing alcohol consumption. However, moderate to severe sleep apnoea may require specialised treatment, such as specially fitted dental devices, or a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) pump that holds your throat open while sleeping.
3. Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)
RLS is a nervous system disorder that causes an overwhelming urge to move your legs. It typically causes uncomfortable sensations in the legs, which might be described as tingling, itchy, pins and needles, pulling, crawling, prickly or painful. It is considered a sleep disorder because it is typically most severe in the evenings.
RLS is found in between 2-5% of people and may be caused by a range of factors, including:
- Pregnancy—RLS may occur temporarily during pregnancy and resolve after birth.
- Chronic health conditions such as anaemia, kidney problems, diabetes, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease or peripheral neuropathy.
- Medications, including some antidepressants and antihistamines.
- Lifestyle—including poor sleep or alcohol, tobacco or caffeine use.
There is no medical test for RLS, but your doctor will be able to make a diagnosis based on your symptoms. Treatments for RLS typically involve treating any underlying causes and providing relief of symptoms.
Narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder characterised by excessive daytime sleepiness, despite adequate night-time sleep duration. People with narcolepsy may find themselves falling asleep in situations they shouldn’t, such as at work, and may also experience cataplexy, which is a sudden loss of muscle power triggered by strong emotions.
Narcolepsy affects approximately 4 people per 10,000. Symptoms typically develop gradually, with many people having narcolepsy for several years before being diagnosed. While there is no cure, symptoms can be managed with medications to reduce excessive sleepiness and cataplexy.
When should I see a doctor?
Consider seeing a doctor if you suspect you have a sleeping disorder, or experience any of the following:
- Persistent difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Persistent daytime tiredness, particularly if you are getting the recommended amount of sleep
- Other symptoms of sleep disorders that do not resolve within a few weeks.
- Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014, Key Sleep Disorders
- Health Direct, 2020, Sleep Disorders
- Health Direct, 2020, Sleep Apnoea
- Sleep Health Foundation, 2019, Common Sleep Disorders
- Sleep Health Foundation, 2022, Narcolepsy
- Sleep Health Foundation, 2022, Insomnia
- Sleep Health Foundation, 2022, Restless Leg Syndrome