Written by Allyson Malecha, Master of Science in Biology
Expert review by Ronee Welch, Sleep Coach and Owner of Sleeptastic Solutions

Illustration representing a circadian rhythm sleep disorder

It’s 2:00 am, and like many other nights before this one, you’re struggling to sleep. You can’t find a comfortable position, and once you finally manage to fall asleep, you find yourself awake again just an hour or two later.

Sleep disorders are frustrating and exhausting, and they can affect everything from your immune system to your social life. Fortunately, once you begin to identify underlying patterns and causes of sleep disruptions, you can begin to treat the symptoms of sleep disorders to get better, more consistent sleep.

This article will explore some of the most common sleep disorders among adults. Our guide may help you identify the symptoms and causes of sleep disruptions and learn about the treatments available, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for a visit to your doctor. If you are experiencing severe or potentially dangerous symptoms, seek help from a medical professional immediately.

Insomnia

Insomnia makes it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, or fall back asleep after waking up. With 30% of the adult population reporting having experienced insomnia symptoms at one point in their lives, insomnia is a common condition.

It’s important to understand that insomnia is often a symptom of another physical or mental health concern. While it can be an isolated issue, insomnia often has an underlying cause you need to address.

Chronic Insomnia

If you experience insomnia for one month or longer, you have chronic insomnia. Typically, chronic insomnia is a side effect of another health condition, medication, prolonged stressors, trauma, or frequent caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol consumption.

Acute Insomnia

On the other hand, short-term or acute insomnia usually lasts for a few days or weeks. In many cases, acute insomnia results from circumstantial factors like stress, shift work, jet lag, or environmental changes.

Insomnia Treatment Options

While acute insomnia can generally resolve on its own as one’s circumstances change, chronic insomnia may require other interventions, like cognitive behavioral therapy or medication. Lifestyle changes, such as diet modifications and regular exercise, can also help treat insomnia.

It’s important to seek care if insomnia symptoms do not resolve, as the long-term effects of insomnia can lead to disrupted focus, irritability, and declining mental health.

For an insomnia diagnosis, your healthcare provider will need to take a complete medical history and physical exam. Depending on their findings, they may also conduct a sleep study.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition where sleep repeatedly stops and restarts throughout the night. It impacts an estimated 22 million Americans and remains undiagnosed in many instances.

There are two primary forms of sleep apnea, obstructive and central. Some people experience a combination of the two, also known as complex sleep apnea syndrome.

Due to the constant cycle of sleep stopping and restarting, those who live with sleep apnea tend to have poor quality sleep. Over time, this can lead to headaches, difficulty concentrating, mood changes, and decreased libido.

To diagnose sleep apnea, your doctor will need to rule out other underlying medical conditions. This will likely require a medical history, physical exam, and sleep study.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles of the throat relax and block the airway. The blockage causes the body’s oxygen levels to decrease, prompting the body to wake itself up and restart the oxygen supply.

This type of sleep apnea is associated with snoring, as the blockage of the throat can cause vibrations and sounds as it stops and starts.

A variety of oral appliances can help treat obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep apnea masks and mouthguards prevent the soft tissues at the back of the throat from relaxing, allowing the airway to remain open, leaving sufficient room for air to pass through.

Another treatment option is the continuous positive airway pressure therapy (CPAP) machine, a machine consisting of a hose and mask. By creating the optimal air pressure in the airway, a CPAP machine prevents the airway from collapsing when you breathe in.

The final treatment option for obstructive sleep apnea is surgery. The goal of surgery for those with sleep apnea is similar to that of the oral appliances and CPAP machine—opening up the airway and maintaining airflow.

Central Sleep Apnea

Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain sends incorrect signals to the muscles required for breathing. When an error in these signals occurs, the muscles don’t function normally, and breathing can stop.

For central sleep apnea, doctors often recommend using a CPAP machine or prescribe medications. Lifestyle changes, such as weight loss, can also help treat the condition.

Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder characterized by sleepiness during the daytime as well as the immediate need to sleep, often called “sleep attacks.” People with narcolepsy struggle to stay awake for long periods.

There are two types of narcolepsy: Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1 involves cataplexy, where muscles lose their tone and become weak. Type 2 does not involve the loss of muscle tone.

People with Type 1 narcolepsy also tend to have low levels of hypocretin, a chemical that regulates REM sleep and keeps you awake during the day. The condition often results from autoimmune disorders or a traumatic brain injury to the areas of the brain responsible for regulating REM sleep.

If someone suspects they have narcolepsy, doctors often start the diagnosis process by instructing the patient to keep a sleep journal and track sleep times and other symptoms over a few weeks. If needed, a doctor can also order a sleep study (polysomnogram), a multiple sleep latency test (MSLT), or measure hypocretin levels in a cerebrospinal fluid sample.

While there is no cure for narcolepsy, it can be treated with medications and lifestyle changes. In combination with medication, doctors often recommend behavioral changes like incorporating short naps into one’s day, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, and avoiding caffeine in the evening.

Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless leg syndrome, or RLS, results in an uncontrollable need to move your legs. It generally occurs at night and is often the result of an uncomfortable (and often unidentifiable) sensation that alleviates with movement. An estimated 7 to 10 percent of the U.S. population has RLS.

While RLS doesn’t typically cause any serious health concerns, the symptoms can be highly distracting and prevent people from sleeping, reducing their overall quality of life.

There is no singular known cause for RLS, but it is likely associated with an imbalance of dopamine. RLS often accompanies other conditions like peripheral neuropathy, kidney failure, and iron deficiency. There’s also a genetic aspect to RLS, as it can run in families.

While there isn’t a test to officially diagnose RLS, the symptoms, your medical history, and physical and neurological exams can help identify the condition.

Treatments for RLS typically focus on lifestyle changes, such as getting more exercise, creating good sleep habits, and soaking in a warm tub.

Some supplements, like magnesium and iron, may also help treat symptoms. For severe cases of RLS, doctors can prescribe dopamine agonists or anti-seizure medications.

Parasomnias

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, parasomnias are a group of sleep disorders that involve “unwanted events or experiences that occur while you are falling asleep, sleeping or waking up. Parasomnias may include abnormal movements, behaviors, emotions, perceptions or dreams.” Examples of parasomnias include:

Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis occurs when the brain shifts between sleep stages. Someone experiencing sleep paralysis may be unable to speak or move, but they feel awake, contributing to a sensation of paranoia. Eight percent of people have experienced at least one episode of sleep paralysis in their lifetime.

Sleep Terrors

Sleep terrors are a disorder of arousal. Someone experiencing a sleep terror (also called night terror) will awake in a state of fear, often screaming or crying. They occur more frequently in children but affect up to 3 percent of adults.

Sleep Walking

Sleepwalking is also a disorder of arousal. When someone sleepwalks, they appear awake and can move around with their eyes open but remain asleep. Like night terrors, sleepwalking is more common in children but can be hereditary and affect adults. Some people even move around the house in their sleep and perform mundane activities like eating or showering.

Parasomnias can be diagnosed on symptoms alone, and many can be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy and a well-established sleep schedule.

Hypersomnia

Hypersomnia, also known as excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS), is a condition where one feels excessively sleepy throughout the day. Hypersomnia can be a symptom of other medical conditions, or it can result from a malfunction of the brain processes that control sleeping and waking.

If a good night’s sleep doesn’t relieve EDS, you may have idiopathic hypersomnia (IH), a type of chronic neurological sleep disorder. Medical professionals use a patient’s medical history and a sleep study to diagnose IH. They often treat it with the same medications used for narcolepsy, as there is currently no FDA-approved treatment for IH.

Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders

If someone’s sleep-wake cycle is offset from their natural sleep-wake cycle due to their environment or lifestyle habits, they may have a circadian rhythm sleep disorder, also known as sleep-wake cycle disorders.

In many cases, circadian rhythm disorders can be treated with consistent sleep hygiene and medications or supplements like melatonin. Common sleep-wake cycle disorders include:

Shift Work Disorder

Shift work disorder is the term for those who frequently work at night or in shift schedules. It is often accompanied by ongoing feelings of tiredness, stomach problems, and mood disorders.

Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder

Delayed sleep phase disorder is a term for many who are thought to be “night owls,” going to sleep and waking up more than two hours later than the norm. It is most common in young adults.

Advanced Sleep Phase Disorder

Advanced sleep phase (ASP) disorder is when a person goes to sleep and wakes up a few hours earlier than the norm, or “early birds.” If a person with ASP goes to bed at the time they desire, they exhibit stable sleep patterns.

Irregular Sleep-wake Rhythm

Those with irregular sleep-wake rhythms have an undefined sleep cycle. Irregular sleep-wake rhythms often accompany neurological disorders like dementia. Side effects of irregular sleep-wake rhythm include chronic sleepiness and mood disorders.

Addressing a Sleep Disorder

Unfortunately, many of the sleep disorders described above are common conditions. However, many of them can be treated or eased with behavioral changes alone.

If you suspect you may have any of the sleep disorders discussed in this guide, don’t wait to get help, whether that means consulting a doctor for medical concerns, a therapist for mental health, or a professional sleep coach for help establishing a sleep schedule. The sooner you address the symptoms and find their underlying cause, the sooner you’ll be sleeping soundly through the night.