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The 4 Most Common Sleep Disorders That Might Plague Your Nights

How to know if your sleepless nights could mean something more.

Lack of sleep is not an unusual problem. With long work hours, social media, and late-night TV, it’s often hard to switch off the electronics, brush your teeth, and head to bed. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that 35 percent of adults in the United States do not get the recommended seven hours of sleep, according to a 2016 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But for many people with chronic sleep deprivation, simply going to bed at the appropriate time is not the problem. Those with sleep disorders may go to bed early and still spend their night wide-eyed and restless, or they may sleep but still spend their day falling asleep at their desks.

Sleep disorders refer to conditions that make it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, get enough sleep, or feel rested. Sleep disorders are often chronic and cause daily sleep deprivation, which can interfere with everyday life, work, driving, and overall health. In fact, they are linked to an increased risk of certain diseases, such as heart disease and depression.

Here are the four most common types of sleep disorders in the U.S.:

1. Insomnia

Insomnia refers to difficulty falling and staying asleep. The word comes from the Greek word insomnis, meaning “sleepless.” People with insomnia may lie awake for hours before falling asleep, wake up frequently and for long periods of time throughout the night, or wake up way before their alarms and be unable to fall back asleep.

Insomnia may be acute (lasting days or weeks) or chronic (lasting more than a month). Acute insomnia could be caused by work stress or a traumatic event, and normal sleep patterns may return as stress levels go down. Chronic insomnia is often a side effect of another problem, such as a medical condition or another sleep disorder. For example, both chronic back pain and anxiety can affect the ability to relax and lead to sleepless nights.

Treating insomnia includes lifestyle changes, developing good sleep habits, therapy, or—if necessary—medication to help re-establish a regular sleep schedule, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.  

2. Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition in which breathing temporarily stops or becomes shallow for a few seconds to even minutes at a time—as often as 30 times an hour. When breathing resumes, it’s often with a sharp gasp, snort, or choking sound. The name comes from the Greek word apnous, or “breathless.”

Two types of sleep apnea include obstructive sleep apnea (where the upper airway becomes blocked or obstructed repeatedly) or central sleep apnea (where the brain doesn’t send signals to breathe), according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Either way, the frequent interruptions can hurt sleep quality and cause daytime drowsiness, and it’s also linked to an increased risk of serious conditions like hypertension, atrial fibrillation, type 2 diabetes, and stroke.

Sleep apnea is often treated with a CPAP machine, or continuous positive air pressure machine. The machine uses a mask to fit over the individual’s nose and mouth to allow regular breathing throughout the night. Learn more about how sleep apnea is treated here.

3. Restless legs syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is exactly what it sounds like: It makes legs feel restless and causes an urge to move or fidget. People with RLS often describe the feeling as a tingling, crawling, or burning sensation in their legs. The feeling gets worse at night and when lying or sitting, so it can make falling asleep very challenging.

RLS is treated with lifestyle changes, relaxation techniques, daytime exercise, and sometimes medication. Practicing regular sleep habits can help.

4. Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to control and regulate sleep-wake cycles. People with narcolepsy may go to bed early and sleep for eight hours, and still feel excessively sleepy during the day. The extreme sleepiness may cause them to fall asleep at inappropriate times and places.

In addition to extreme daytime sleepiness, people with narcolepsy are also more likely to experience sleep paralysis—the inability to move or sleep when waking up or falling asleep—as well as hallucinations. Narcolepsy can be treated with lifestyle changes and medications.

All sleep disorders disrupt daily life and can affect overall health. If you frequently find yourself struggling to sleep well or feeling tired during the day, talk to your doctor.

Duration: 1:30. Last Updated On: Feb. 22, 2019, 2:15 p.m.
Reviewed by: Preeti Parikh, MD . Review date: Feb. 20, 2019
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