Sleep Disorders: Causes, Symptoms, Types, & Treatment

Topics: sleeping problem, sleep deprivation, sleep disorder

Sleep disorder is a layman's term to describe trouble with falling or staying asleep. Sleep disorders can affect anyone and may result from physical or psychological factors. These problems impact your rest quality and duration and pose issues to your ability to function when you are awake. Our knowledge of sleep problems has improved and contributed to a better understanding in the past years. So, if you suspect that you or your loved one is suffering from a sleep disorder, here is a full fledged blog on sleep disorders, Cause, symptoms, types, ways to identify them and at the end some treatment options.

Common Sleep Disorders-1


What are sleep disorders?

Sleep disorder definition: Experts define sleep disorders as conditions that disrupts normal sleep patterns, leading to difficulties in falling asleep, or getting proper sleep or we can say a condition that keep you away from getting restful sleep. Therefore, these disorders cause daytime sleepiness and make you feel exhausted. Although it is quite normal to experience trouble with a good night's rest from time to time, you should contact a sleep expert if it continues in the long run. Some signs you should be on the lookout for if you suspect a sleep disorder include:

  • Experiencing regular difficulty in sleeping
  • Feeling tired the following day, even after resting for seven hours last night
  • Reduced ability to perform regular daytime activities

Are sleep disorders common?

With the increasing stress levels and poor lifestyle habits, more and more people are developing sleep disorders. While some complain they cannot rest at night despite time and opportunity, others feel excessively sleepy. According to the 2019 Physics Global Sleep Survey, about 62% of people worldwide complain of not resting well even after going to bed. Sleep disorders are growing rapidly and may affect the overall physical and mental health of individuals.


Causes of Sleep Disorders

The causes of Sleep disorders can vary widely, but these disorders often result from the combination of factors, including:

  1. Mental Health: stress, depression and anxiety can lead to sleep disorders
  2. Medications: Some medications have side effects that can interfere your sleep
  3. Ageing as many people above 65 suffer from some sleep disorder
  4. Working the night shift may lead to sleep problems
  5. Medical condition like asthma, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome
  6. Physical condition like having an ulcer, deep pain etc.
  7. Genetics, Family history of sleep disorders or suffering from narcolepsy
  8. Environmental Factors like pollution, noise, light, temperature, comfortable mattress or pillow that can affect your sleep

Symptoms of Sleep disorders

Common Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders symptoms can vary depending on the type of sleep disorder, but people suffering from sleep disorders typically shows the following signs:

  1. Difficulty in falling asleep: Struggling to sleep even when tired
  2. Excessive Daytime Sleepiness: Feeling tired and sleepy during the day
  3. Loud Snoring
  4. Restless legs
  5. Difficulty Concentrating: Fail to concentrate at work and have difficulty paying attention
  6. Experience performance problems and reduced productivity
  7. Experience memory problems
  8. Respond to situations slowly
  9. Fail to control their emotions
  10. Feel the need to take naps during the day
  11. Struggle to stay active when awake

Diagnosis for sleep disorders

Diagnosing sleep disorders typically involves a multi-step process:

  1. Medical History: People who suspect they suffer from a sleep disorders should consult a healthcare provider. A healthcare provider will take a detail medical history, ask you certain questions related to sleep patterns, symptoms, lifestyle, etc.
  2. Physical examination: The healthcare provider can even request you to undergo a physical exam to identify the cause of your sleeplessness. Since sleep issues can also result from certain health conditions, you may be asked to take a few more tests to rule out other conditions.
  3. Sleep Diary:  If you can maintain a sleep diary for a couple of weeks with detailed records of your sleep habits, timings, and symptoms can be helpful.
  4. Sleep Study (Polysomnography): If the doctor suspects you have a rest disorder, he may send you to a sleep expert. The specialist will check your symptoms and may suggest you undergo a sleep study. To take the test, you will have to visit a sleep lab where an exam will be conducted that electronically transmits and records physical activities when asleep. This study monitors various parameters, including brain activity, eye movements, heart rate, breathing, and limb movements during sleep. The sleep expert will later review the data to determine the problem.

What questions are asked by your sleep healthcare provider?

For diagnosing whether you have a sleep disorder, your sleep expert may ask you the following questions:

  • How many hours of rest do you catch at night?
  • Do you manage to squeeze in naps during the daytime?
  • Do you have a history of working night shifts?
  • Do you feel a lot sleepy during the day?
  • Do you toss and turn in your bed regularly?

What happens if you don't sleep?

Experts suggest individuals sleep for 7-8 hours every night. Resting for the recommended time rejuvenates your system and helps you sustain yourself. However, if, because of reasons like sleep disorders, your rest is disturbed, it may take a toll on your body. Not getting the proper amount of sleep can lead to more problems than just feeling tired. It may interfere with your cognitive functioning, resulting in disabilities like poor memory. Also, sleep deprivation is harmful as it may lead to personality changes and depression.

Besides, some short-term issues also occur because of not resting well. People with poor quality sleep face decision-making problems, irritability, performance issues, slower reaction times, and increased chances of work or road accidents. Despite the type of sleep disorder, the end result is a disrupted sleep cycle and daytime exhaustion. Moreover, sleep loss is bad for your health as it contributes to issues like diabetes, obesity, and heart problems.


Types of Sleep Disorders

There are several types of sleep disorders, each with its own unique characteristics and causes. Some of the common types of sleep disorders are:

1. Snoring

The most common sleep disorder is snoring, refers to the difficulty in keeping the throat open during sleep. As the throat muscles relax, they narrow and eventually close the airway. Snoring is the sound that air makes as it tries to squeeze in through the closing airway. So, is snoring bad? Yes, snoring is bad but it is not considered a medical condition in itself, it can be an indicator of a bigger underlying disorder that is sleep apnea.



2. Sleep Apnea

Another type of sleep disorder is Sleep Apnea refers to a medical condition where a person experiences intermittent cessation of breathing during sleep. These brief periods of stopped breathing, or apnea episodes, lead to a reduction in oxygen level in the blood, causing a person’s body to be jerked awake.

The obstruction in breathing may be due to a blocked upper airway, known as Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). It can also be due to the failure of the brain to signal to breathe, known as Central Sleep Apnea (CSA). In worst cases, it can lead to heart attack, stroke, or sudden death. Therapy and treatments options for sleep apnea like CPAP are available to treat Sleep Apnea.

3. Insomnia

Insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders characterised by an inability to sleep. People face difficulty in falling and staying asleep. They take a long time to fall asleep or to get back to sleep if awakened during sleep. If the condition occurs thrice a week and continues for three months, it is called chronic insomnia and requires appropriate treatment, including intake of sleeping pills and cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBTI). Prolonged sleep deprivation caused by insomnia can increase a person's risk of Alzheimer’s.


4. Restless Legs Syndrome

As the name suggests, this condition is marked by uncontrollable sensations in legs—such as pins and needles, or bugs crawling up the leg—with a pressing urge to move. The sensations usually subside with movement of the legs either through walking or stretching. There are many factors that can lead to RLS, the most prominent being anemia, pregnancy, and obesity. Medication and adequate intake of iron can help treat this condition.

5. Circadian Rhythm Disorders

When a person's biological clock (circadian rhythm) falls out of sync with the external environment, circadian rhythm disorders can set in. These are usually caused due to blindness or in people working in night shifts or frequent travellers experiencing jet lag. These conditions can be treated with exposure to natural light at the correct time to restore the sync and regular sleep cycle.

6. Narcolepsy

This is a neurological disorder which affects a person's control over sleep and wakefulness. People experiencing excessive sleepiness during the day, cataplexy, sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic hallucinations are considered suffering from narcolepsy. People suffering from narcolepsy are at risk of falling asleep at inappropriate times—such as while driving—which can prove fatal. Treatment may include stimulants, antidepressants, and xyrem.

7. Parasomnias

These disruptive sleep disorders manifest through abnormal sleep behaviour including sleepwalking, sleep sex, rapid eye movement, and so forth. These behaviours are goal-directed and occur while the person is still asleep. Parasomnias can occur due to a number of causes and can be treated through medicines such as melatonin.

8. Sleep Paralysis

Sleep Paralysis is a dangerous sleep disorder where a person is unable to move their body when waking up from sleep. The person is awake but temporarily unable to move or talk. This generally lasts for a few seconds to minutes.

Sleep paralysis happens when parts of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep occur while you're awake. And in many cases, it is a very occasional event that occurs in someone who is otherwise healthy. Hallucinations may accompany this condition. Treatment of sleep paralysis can be done through counseling and medication.

9. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

The main characteristic of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is prolonged fatigue that does not subside even after full rest. The condition worsens with any mental or physical activity and can lead to a considerable impact on daily activities.

It can be caused due to viral infection, psychological stress, or a combination of factors, and is often difficult to diagnose. Currently, there is no cure for this, but treatment can relieve symptoms. Making lifestyle changes, sticking to a sleep routine, and practising methods to conserve the patient’s energy can help treat this condition.

10. Seasonal Affective Disorder

This is a mood-related condition, which is often associated with depression or excessive sleep. It occurs when natural light fails to reach the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the brain, such as during winters. Its treatment may include light therapy (phototherapy), medications and psychotherapy.

SAD can also be developed for opposite patterns where the affected feel depressed in summers. In either case, symptoms may start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses. And if left untreated, can lead to serious complications.

11. REM Sleep Behaviour Disorder

Sudden body movements and vocalizations during sleep characterize the condition. It happens because the patient experiences vivid dreams while in REM sleep. When an individual is in the REM stage, the body experiences temporary muscle paralysis that allows him to dream safely, lying still when the brain is active. But, when someone is suffering from a REM sleep disorder, muscle paralysis does not happen because of which the individual physically acts out his dreams. The condition can manifest itself in actions like small muscle twitches, loud shouting, punching, kicking, grabbing their partner, and jumping out of bed.

12. Excessive Sleepiness

If someone feels sleepy in the daytime almost every day for at least three months, he might be suffering from excessive sleepiness. In this condition, the individual experiences difficulty staying awake or alert. It gets even more challenging to stay active when you are sedentary, like driving or sitting at work.

13. Shift-work Sleep Disorder

A type of circadian rhythm problem, shift-work disorder, is caused by a misalignment between the body and circadian rhythm. It happens due to working in non-traditional hours, outside of the typical 9 to 5 shift. Some common symptoms that people develop in this sleep disorder are insomnia, excessive sleepiness, and recurring sleep loss. To get diagnosed with this condition, one must report signs for at least one month regardless of the attempts to rest each day.

14. Periodic Limb Movement Disorder

In this condition, the patients experience repetitive jerking, cramping, and twitching in the lower parts of their limbs while asleep. It might happen for a duration of 5 to 90 seconds for about an hour. These movements can disturb sleep and cause you to feel daytime sleepiness and fatigue the following day.

What should you ask your sleep healthcare provider?

If you have been diagnosed with any one of the above-mentioned sleep disorders, here are a few things you must ask your healthcare provider:

  • What type of sleep disorder do I have?
  • What is the severity levels/stage of my sleep problem? 
  • Will improving my sleep hygiene help my condition?
  • Should I visit a specialist?
  • Are my current medications interfering with my sleep?
  • Do I need to come regularly to the clinic to get treated?

How can you treat sleep disorders?

For successfully treating sleep problems, the following methods are used:

  • Some patients are recommended cognitive behaviour therapy. The counselling helps realize problems with sleep habits and behaviours. It aims to address and change the negative thoughts that may keep people awake at night.
  • To get better, doctors recommend people take sleep medications. But, since this method does not treat problems at the root cause, it is not a long-term solution.
  • To get a good night's rest, patients are advised to exercise regularly. 
  • Some experts suggest sleep disorder patients take light therapy. It involves controlling exposure to outdoor daylight and indoor artificial light sources.
  • Patients should follow good sleep and lifestyle habits to improve their condition.

Besides these more common sleep disorder treatments, sleep experts also suggest sleep disorder patients undergo specific treatments depending on their condition.

What foods or drinks should be avoided for good sleep health?

To reduce the risk of developing a sleep disorder, here are a few food items you must avoid:

  • Diet pills
  • Tobacco
  • Alcohol
  • Antidepressants
  • Decongestants 
  • Caffeinated drinks
  • Antidepressants


Maintaining a healthy body to work at peak condition, is one of the key reasons why we sleep. But untreated sleep disorders can slowly but surely impact our health. While most of these stem from changing lifestyles and increasing stress, ignoring them can lead to major health challenges including hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression and more.

People experiencing any of the sleep disorders symptoms must seek evaluation by a qualified health provider. Timely intervention can prevent the problem from magnifying and increases the chances of complete recovery, leading to better health.

Most health providers inquire about the sleep issues a person faces. Therefore, it is a good idea to keep a sleep diary with details about the issues that a person faces. If anything abnormal is observed, the health provider can advise appropriate tests and investigations. You can also start by taking a Sleep Quiz, to figure out the issues with your sleep.


If you enjoyed this article, we invite you to read more of our blogs Sleep ApneaSnoring, Insomnia, and Sleep deprivation.

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