Sleep disorders are more common than you think. They can affect anyone, at any age, and for many different reasons. It is important to know what they are so that you or a loved one can get help if needed. In this blog post we will discuss the most common sleeping disorders and how to identify them – narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea, rapid eye movement (REM), circadian rhythm sleeping disorders, insomnia, and restless legs syndrome – as well as provide tips on what you can do if you suspect that someone has one of these illnesses.

So what exactly is a sleep disorder? Put simply, sleep disorders are conditions that disrupt the natural sleep process. The disruption can be either temporary or chronic, and can range from mild to severe. Understanding what a sleep disorder is and how it manifests will help you know if you have one. 

Narcolepsy is characterized by overwhelming daytime drowsiness. It can also cause disruptions in nighttime sleep, with frequent awakenings and/or incomplete bouts of sleep, which lead to chronic sleep deprivation. Patients with narcolepsy often report experiencing “sleep paralysis” at the onset or upon awakening; this is a temporary inability to move or speak despite being fully conscious (when this happens before falling asleep, it’s called hypnagogic or predormital hallucination).

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a disorder that occurs when the airway becomes partially or completely blocked during sleep, interrupting normal breathing. This can lead to pauses in breathing (apneas), which can last from a few seconds to minutes, and can occur up to 30 times per hour. Each episode of apnea reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood, leading to a number of health problems.

OSA is a very common disorder, affecting an estimated 18 million Americans. It is most often diagnosed in middle-aged and older adults, but can occur at any age.

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep disorder is a type of parasomnia characterized by exhibiting unusual behavior during REM sleep. This includes, but is not limited to: speaking, shouting, laughing, walking or gesturing. It can take place in combination with other parasomnias such as sleepwalking and night terrors.

REM sleep disorder is often found alongside another condition such as Parkinson’s disease, dementia or brain tumors.

A person suffering from REM sleep disorder usually has no recollection of any such occurrences after waking up. Cases of talking and gesturing during these episodes are not uncommon; people suffering from this disorder might also disrupt their sleeping environment through their actions.

Circadian rhythm sleep disorders are conditions that affect the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. The most common circadian rhythm sleep disorder is insomnia, which is characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep. Other circadian rhythm sleep disorders include: delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS), advanced sleep phase syndrome (ASPS), and irregular sleep-wake syndrome (ISWS).

Insomnia can be caused by a number of factors, including stress, medical conditions, the side effects of certain medications, and changes in sleep environment. Insomnia is reported to have affected 56% of people at least once in their lives. To diagnose insomnia, your doctor will most likely ask you about:

-How much sleep you’re getting and when (nightly routine)

-What your sleep is like (for example, whether you’re comfortable or restless)

-What triggers your insomnia (such as light or noise)

-Your level of daytime functioning

If the doctor thinks that you might be suffering from chronic insomnia (lasting 3 months or more), he/she may also recommend taking a sleeping aid for a limited period of time to restore a healthy sleeping routine.

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder that manifests in an overwhelming urge to move the limbs because of unpleasant and uncomfortable sensations. For many people, these sensations often occur when resting and worsen with inactivity. Common symptoms include an uneasy or heavy sensation in the legs,, a creeping or crawling sensation in the legs, an urge to bend your knees upwards, an urge to grasp an object tightly or rub your limbs together, an uncomfortable feeling in your toes, fingers or other parts of the body that you touch with your hand.

RLS is more common in older adults, affecting about five percent of the population over 50 years old. It often runs in families (hereditary). Other factors that can increase your risk for RLS include: smoking, caffeine or alcohol use; health problems such as diabetes and anemia; pregnancy; depression or other mental-health issues.

Sleep disorders are very common and can be easily identified. Insomnia is one of the most prevalent sleep disorders, but it can often be treated with lifestyle changes or medications, if necessary. For other sleep disorders, such OSA, restless legs syndrome, or REM sleep disorder, diagnosis and treatment might be a bit more complex. It is important to seek help if you are experiencing any unusual or disruptive symptoms during sleep. If you’re noticing that your sleep habits have changed recently or dramatically, consult your doctor for diagnosis and treatment options.

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