The 6 Biggest Sleep Disorders and How to Treat Them

Sleep disorders can interrupt your sleep regularly, causing havoc with your body and mind. Here are the most common types and how to treat them.

Updated: May 18, 2020

Getting good sleep is important for everyone. It doesn’t matter whether you’re young or old, male or female, or what other categories you might fall into.

We all need good sleep to feel our best and get things done every day. When you have a sleep disorder, though, you can quickly start losing sleep and feeling bad.

Important! Some sleep disorders are easy to fix, and others are more complicated. But the best thing to do is find out what’s causing you to miss out on good sleep.

Maybe you can’t fall asleep fast enough, or you don’t stay asleep.

Are you waking up early? Having bad dreams? Maybe you just don’t feel rested, even though you slept through the night.

No matter what kinds of sleep-related problems you’re having, getting to the bottom of the issue and seeking out good treatment both matter.

Here’s everything you need to know when dealing with a sleep disorder. Being an informed patient can help you get the best treatment, so you can get a good night’s sleep again.

In this Guide

What is a Sleep Disorder?

It’s a recurring problem that has minor to serious affects the length of time you sleep, the quality of it, or other factors over time. It can be everything from waking too early to having bad dreams, or even falling asleep when you shouldn’t.

It’s a medical disorder, also called somnipathy. Some sleep disorders interfere with daily life and can be severe, while others are more minor.

Signs and Symptoms

A man looking very tired.
Signs and symptoms may indicate that you’re suffering from a sleep disorder.

In order to address all the ways that sleep disturbances can affect your life, you want to understand the signs and symptoms you’re experiencing. To do that effectively, and to have something to look back on for patterns to the problem, you may want to keep a sleep diary.

The main signs and symptoms of sleep disorders include:

  • Trouble falling/staying asleep
  • Anxiety or irritability
  • Fatigue during the daytime (daytime sleepiness)
  • Depression
  • The need to take a nap
  • Trouble with concentration and focus

There are other problems that can come about if you have a sleep disorder, but these are the most common issues. If you only have minor problems for a short time, it’s probably nothing to worry about. But if you struggle to sleep well and the issue doesn’t seem to be going away, talking to your doctor could be the right choice.

When to Visit a Doctor

Anyone who has problems with their sleep patterns that are starting to affect their daily life may want to see their doctor. Working with a medical professional can make it easier to get to the bottom of the problem.

That means faster diagnosis and faster treatment. Sleep issues and disorders were first classified by the medical profession in 1979. Since that time, the types of disorders and how they’re classified has continued to evolve.

Photo of a stethoscope on a table.
If lack of sleep is affecting your normal life, then it’s time to get a doctors opinion.

Doctors and expert health care providers diagnose sleep problems in a number of different ways, including using the most current version of the full manual of sleep disorders. This manual has developed from the early days of classification, where all sleep problems were included under one “umbrella” disorder.

Now, there are a number of different types of sleep disorders, many of which have different root causes and different treatments, as well. The most commonly used diagnostic tests for sleep-related issues are:

  • Polysomnography – a study that records oxygen levels, heart rate, brain waves, breathing, leg movements, and eye movements during sleep.
  • Electroencephalography – a study that detects electrical activity in the brain.
  • Actigraphy – a study that measures rest and activity cycles over the course of a week, usually conducted through a monitor worn on the wrist.
  • Blood tests – iron levels and thyroid function are two of the most commonly used blood markers for sleep disorder diagnosis.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine provides practice standards, clinical research, and much more for doctors who work to diagnose sleep disorders. Case studies, trends, and outliers are all examined for ways that information can be used to more easily diagnose those who struggle with sleep problems.

Among the largest issues for doctors is determining the cause of a person’s sleep disturbance. Once the cause is addressed, better treatment can be recommended.

What Causes a Sleeping Disorder?

There are a number of conditions, syndromes, and health problems that can cause a sleep disorder. Lifestyle choices can also play a role for some people.

Woman holding her head in her hand.
Various factors can cause sleep problems.

In order for a doctor to properly diagnose one, that doctor must determine the cause of the disorder as closely as possible. In some cases, there are multiple problems affecting a person’s ability to sleep. Here are some of the most common reasons for a sleep disorder:

  • 22q11.2 deletion syndrome – this is caused by a small, missing segment of the 22nd chromosome. It’s also called DiGeorge Syndrome.
  • Alcoholism – anyone who drinks heavily will generally have trouble sleeping. They may wake frequently from alcohol or need to drink to drift off.
  • Anxiety disorder – just like depression, anxiety frequently causes people to sleep too much or too little. Due to the nervousness and restlessness that come with anxiety, many people struggle to fall asleep.
  • Nightmare disorder – also called dream anxiety disorder, this condition causes the sufferer to have frequent nightmares. Most of these nightmares involve situations where death or great harm occurs.
  • Panic – not to be confused with anxiety disorder, panic causes overwhelming and uncontrollable fear responses. In some cases, the panic can seem to happen randomly and without a significant trigger.
  • Psychosis – disorders that cause psychosis, such as schizophrenia, have long been associated with sleep disorders. The problems are typically seen in the early stages of psychosis and maybe less prevalent later in the establishment of the condition.

While there can be other causes of sleep disorders in some folks, these are the most common diseases and conditions that cause sleep difficulties.

They are some of the conditions your doctor will test for and ask you about. If you aren’t found to have any of these issues, then it’s time to explore more rare reasons for your sleep struggles.

The 6 Major Sleep Disorders

A man sleeping in the sunlight.
Take note and see whether you might be one of the thousands of have an actual disorder.

The ultimate list of sleep disorders is right here, along with the most common treatment for each of the disorders addressed.

That doesn’t mean another type of treatment won’t work for you, though, so ask your doctor about your specific concerns. Generally, the most common treatment works for the majority of people who have that particular sleep disorder. Here are the disorders you’ll want to consider if you’re having trouble with sleep.

1. Insomnia

Illustration of a man wide awake with head on a pillow.

Insomnia is, by far, the most commonly recognized sleep disorder. Nearly everyone has heard of it and understands that it essentially means that the person has trouble sleeping.

Generally, those with insomnia struggle to drift off to sleep but may sleep well once they do eventually doze off. In some cases, they also wake early.

Treatments for insomnia are varied and numerous. The treatment that’s right for you will depend on the root cause and why it happens to you.

2. Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorders

Illustration of the moon eclipsing the sun.

The body’s circadian rhythm is what causes you to feel sleepy during certain times of the day and feel more awake during other times.

This usually coincides with the planet’s cycles of light and dark, or day and night.

In some cases, this rhythm can be disrupted by disorders or activities. Some of the most common causes of circadian rhythm problems are listed here:

  • Jet Lag – the reason jet lag disrupts sleep is that it causes you to cross several time zones in a short period. Avoiding that kind of travel and being patient while you readjust are the basic treatments. You can also take over-the-counter sleep medicine to battle daytime sleepiness and reset your circadian rhythm.
  • Shift work sleep disorder – people who work the midnight shift, or who frequently change shifts, can easily find their sleep disrupted. If you have to do this kind of work, keeping your bedroom dark during the day and using over-the-counter sleep aids responsibly can help make it easier.
  • Advanced sleep-wake phase disorder – this disorder is characterized by feeling sleepy in the early evening and waking very early in the morning. Chronotherapy and bright light therapy are both common treatments for this condition.
  • Delayed sleep-wake phase disorder – in the same way, that the previous disorder causes you to feel sleepy early and wake up early, this disorder causes people to have trouble going to sleep at a normal hour. Instead, they stay up very late and rest in very late. Light therapy, chronotherapy, and medications can all be used for treatment.
  • Irregular sleep-wake rhythm disorder – this is a rare condition, where there’s no pattern at all to a person’s sleep. They may also feel very tired when awake, but the hours of shut-eye they get in a 24-hour period are typically normal. Behavior therapy, exercise, and medications can all be helpful.
  • Non-24 hour sleep-wake disorder – this is most common in non-sighted individuals, as they don’t have the standard cues of light and dark to help control their circadian rhythms. Melatonin is often used, as is phototherapy for those who are sighted. Prescription medication is also available.
  • Sleep-wake phase disorders – phase disorders involve the time that a person is able to fall asleep and/or the time that they typically wake up. The most common ways to adjust this time are to use light therapies and medications, as well as behavioral techniques.
  • Sleep-wake rhythm disorders – rhythm disorders involve the ability to keep sleeping, in that the rhythm the person has is not “typical.” People with rhythm disorders may sleep for two hours, be awake for five, sleep for three more, etc. Medications and behavioral techniques can help them improve.

While these types of disturbances are significant, they’re certainly not the only kinds of disorders faced by people who have trouble with sleep. There are a number of other conditions that can cause difficulties, and that also has to be understood. Fortunately, these disorders also have treatment options.

3. Hypersomnias

Illustration of a guy who's tired.

Typically, hypersomnias involve sleeping too much, or at inappropriate times of the day.

Most people think of narcolepsy as falling into this category, but there are other conditions that are also a part of this group of disorders.

Four of the most common hypersomnias are discussed here:

  • Kleine-Levin Syndrome – this neurological disorder is marked by altered behavior and periods of excessive sleep. There is also a reduced understanding of the outside world, and the problem can last for a decade or longer. Medications can help, but there’s no specific or definitive treatment for this disorder.
  • Narcolepsy – this condition affects sleep and wake controls, and can make you extremely sleepy during the day. They often fall asleep at unexpected times or places. Medications such as stimulants and antidepressants can help, but there’s no cure for this condition.
  • Idiopathic hypersomnia – a condition such as this one doesn’t have a specific, known cause. That’s what idiopathic means. Treatment can be difficult, due to the inability to determine the specific cause of the disorder. If a specific cause is found, though, treatment is often successful.
  • Insufficient sleep syndrome – while considered a voluntary condition, this syndrome involves not getting enough sleep for a long period. That leads to sleep deprivation, which affects daily functioning. Not feeling alert can cause a lot of problems, but getting more sleep can correct the problem.

Hypersomnias can be difficult to treat and control, but there are options to improve sleep quality and timing. Working with your doctor is the best way to find the cause of your sleep troubles and the treatment option that’s going to be right for you.

4. Parasomnias

Illustration of woman looking very tired.

These are another class of sleep disorders is parasomnias which can cause serious issues based on the lack of sleep, but can also be problematic in other aspects of health.

Not only for you, but also members of your family and even your partner will be impacted.

Parasomnias can be caused by other health issues, or they can also be the cause of them.

The main disorders are:

  • Night terrors – screaming, flailing, and experiencing intense fear while asleep are considered sleep terrors. Interrupting sleep can help break the cycle, and the problem will usually correct itself. Night terrors are more commonly seen in children, but can also happen in adults.
  • Rem behavior disorder (RBD) – acting out dreams, both vocally and with movement, is very common in this disorder. The dreams are often violent and vivid. Medications such as benzodiazepines can help reduce the behavior, as can melatonin and some types of antidepressants.
  • Sleep hallucinations – having hallucinations while sleeping can be vivid and frightening, and usually happen while waking up or falling asleep. There’s generally no treatment for these hallucinations, but some medications can be helpful. That largely depends on the cause of the problem.
  • Sleep paralysis – this is an inability to move while waking up or when falling asleep, and usually passes in seconds to minutes. While frightening, it’s not harmful or dangerous. It can accompany other disorders, and treating those disorders can stop the paralysis, as well.
  • Sleep-related eating disorder – a disorder such as this causes a person to get up during the night and eat, often with no or little memory of the event. There are sleep-aid medications a doctor can prescribe that may help the condition.
  • Sleepwalking – this disorder is relatively common, as many people sleepwalk at least once in their life. Some people remember doing it, while others do not. It’s a good idea to mention it to your doctor, but treatment isn’t always needed or effective.
  • Somniloquy – sleeptalking is another common disorder. Many people talk in their sleep, and it doesn’t generally need treatment. It can be more common in times of stress of sickness, but in others, it’s just something they do.
  • Catathrenia – nocturnal groaning occurs often in people who talk in their sleep, as well. It can also be the result of certain types of other diseases and conditions. The treatment for it is minimal and can be based on the presumed cause of the groaning.
  • Confusional arousals – this involves waking up confused, either when you naturally wake or during the night. It can take some time to get reoriented after waking and can lead to uncomfortable or frightening situations. Medications may help reduce the confusion and the nighttime waking.
  • Exploding head syndrome – hearing a loud noise, like an explosion, when falling asleep is a big part of this syndrome. There aren’t many treatments for it, and it’s not dangerous. But it can be frightening and upsetting. Some sleep medications may reduce the frequency of events.
  • Hypnagogia – this is a transitional consciousness state between sleeping and waking. It allows for lucid dreams, hallucinations, and many other phenomenons. There is no need for a treatment for this state unless you experience common sleep problems during that state on a regular basis.
  • Nightmare disorder – having nightmares is a common occurrence, but when they are frequent they can rise to the level of a disorder. Medications can help in some cases, but at other times it can be much more difficult to stop or reduce the nightmares.
  • NREM parasomnias – these are parasomnias that occur during non-REM sleep. There are medication options that can help with some of these conditions, but in many cases, it is most effective to use behavioral techniques to improve sleep and wake cycles as much as possible.
  • REM parasomnias – during REM sleep, parasomnias that occur may be treated by behavioral techniques and medications. If untreated, these events can prevent someone from getting good REM sleep, which is important for mental and physical health.

Because parasomnias can be difficult to control and treat, it’s important to talk to your doctor about the best way to handle them.

Medications may be the right choice, but there are also behavioral treatments and other therapies that can work well. If an underlying cause is found, treating that cause can reduce or eliminate sleep disorder symptoms, as well.

5. Sleep-Related Movement Disorders

Illustration of a man with one leg raised.

The idea of having uncontrollable movements while sleeping can seem frightening to a lot of folks, but it’s something that happens to many people.

These sleep-related movement disorders are significant and can affect sleep quality.

The good news is they’re also treatable in the majority of cases, so can be considered minor.

Here are the most commonly seen types:

  • Myoclonus – this disorder causes periodic limb movements that can be hard to control. It’s responsible for hiccups, and also for those sudden “jerks” that can happen right as someone’s falling asleep. They aren’t harmful and don’t need treatment.
  • Nocturnal leg cramps – getting leg cramps during the night can really keep you from getting a good night’s rest. These kinds of cramps occur frequently in athletes. Runners, especially, make have leg cramps during sleep. Medications, massage, and potassium can all help reduce this problem.
  • Restless legs syndrome (RLS) – there are several causes for RLS, and finding the cause helps with treating the problem. Untreated, RLS can cause an extremely uncomfortable urge to move your legs, keeping you from dozing off. The good news is sleep medicine can help to combat restless legs issues.
  • Rhythmic movement disorder (RMD) – this disorder causes movements of the large muscles, particularly in the neck and head, before and during sleep. Vestibular stimulation therapy can help, as can some medications. This problem happens most often in children and may resolve itself.
  • Sleep bruxism – somebody with bruxism grinds or clenches their teeth while they sleep. This doesn’t usually keep them from sleeping, but it can cause jaw pain and other discomforts. Anti-anxiety medications, muscle relaxants, and night guards to protect their teeth are all treatment options.
  • Sleep starts – these are also called hypnic jerks, and they can occur as someone is falling asleep or after they’re already sleeping. In most cases they’re harmless, and they don’t signal an actual problem. No treatment is usually needed.
  • Periodic limb movement disorder – much like myoclonus, this disorder can also cause “jerks” as someone is about to fall asleep. Unless it becomes problematic or happens all the time, there isn’t usually a treatment needed and you’ll have to live with the sudden urge to move. Some medications can help, if necessary.
  • Bedwetting – this problem usually occurs in children, although it can happen in adults. A physical or mental health cause should be ruled out. Barring other reasons, it could be that the person is sleeping so deeply that they don’t wake up to use the bathroom. Waterproof sheets and underwear may be needed.
  • Sleep sex – this disorder, also called sexsomnia, causes people to engage in sexual acts while they are sleeping. They often have no memory of the event. Medications and anticonvulsant therapy can be helpful to reduce or eliminate this behavior.

Movement disorders can be a serious problem for anyone who struggles with them. Fortunately, most of these disorders aren’t dangerous. However, some sleep disorders can actually put people at risk of harm. Those will be explored in the next section.

6. Sleep-Related Breathing Disorders

Illustration of a man breathing through his nose.

Breathing disorders can be anything that causes a person to have a problem breathing while they’re trying to sleep.

Some of these disorders can be potentially life-threatening, and can also cause other health problems. So it’s crucial that you take these seriously if you have any of the following issues below.

Here are the three most common disorders that involve breathing:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea – this disorder causes a person to stop and start breathing while they’re sleeping. It’s caused when the throat muscles relax too much and block the airway, and can be very unhealthy. Using a CPAP machine is the typical treatment for this condition.
  • Central sleep apnea – when the brain isn’t sending proper signals to the breathing muscles, this kind of sleep apnea can occur. It’s less common than the obstructive type, but a CPAP or BPAP machine can still treat it. So can addressing medical conditions, taking medications, and using supplemental oxygen.
  • Chronic snoring – finding the cause of the snoring is the first step since many conditions can cause it. Treating the underlying condition is usually how this type of problem is addressed.

Since breathing disorders can be very dangerous to long-term health and well-being, it’s important to get them treated quickly.

But what kinds of treatments do these problems – and the other sleep disorders addressed here actually have? There are many options, many of which have been mentioned. But there are also fewer standard treatments, and these can be very valuable.

Treatments and Therapies

Photo of a bunch of medication pills.
Some treatment is very effective.

When it comes to treating sleep disorders, alternative or unexpected therapies can be just as valuable as the more common ones. Here are some treatments to consider, along with or in place of more typical options.

  • Allergy treatment – if you have allergies, these can cause snoring, trouble sleeping, and a host of other issues. Getting your allergies treated and under control can reduce or eliminate many other problems.
  • Acupuncture – while not commonly thought of for the treatment of sleep disorders, acupuncture has been used to treat medical conditions for hundreds of years. There’s generally no risk to giving it a try.
  • Hypnosis – some people are easily hypnotized, and if you’re one of them you might be able to reduce your sleeping problems by allowing someone to hypnotize you. If you are suggestible, self-help tools like NLP, affirmations, and hypnosis can be very powerful. This is especially true for movement disorders and nightmare problems, along with depression and anxiety.
  • Music therapy – listening to music can be very relaxing, and if you listen to it at bedtime you may find that you sleep better. While this may not correct serious sleep difficulties, it can help with feeling calmer while falling asleep.
  • Melatonin – this can be purchased over the counter, and it’s generally safe for most people to take. If you’re on medications or have medical conditions, though, ask your doctor. For most people, melatonin relaxes them and helps them sleep more comfortably.
  • Prescribed medication – depending on the disorder, medications for anxiety, muscle relaxants, and other options can be excellent choices. They don’t work for everyone, but they’re certainly worth considering.
  • Breathing devices – CPAP and BPAP machines, along with supplemental oxygen, work very well for sleep apnea and some other conditions. Because of that, they’re worth exploring with your doctor if you suffer from breathing problems during sleep.
  • Dental guard – for people with bruxism, a dental guard can be a great way to save and protect their teeth. These guards can also help keep people from biting their tongue or cheeks while they sleep from clenching or grinding their teeth.

Talking to your doctor will help you find the treatment that’s right for you. Some sleep disorders are more serious than others and will need a different kind of treatment. It’s important to get a proper diagnosis, so your treatment is successful.

Risks and Dangers of Sleep Disorders

Illustration of a skull.

The main risks and dangers of sleep disorders include breathing problems, heart conditions, weight gain, and accidents from sleep deprivation.

There are other risks, but these are the most serious and significant.

That’s why it’s important to treat a sleep disorder promptly before it can become more serious or dangerous to your health.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between a disorder and a problem?

A problem is generally more of an annoyance. A disorder affects your quality of life and can be damaging to your health.

What can cause sleep disorders?

A wide variety of conditions can cause sleep disorders. Your doctor can help determine what might be causing yours.

How many sleep disorders are there?

There are around 80 different sleep disorders, with some being much more common than others.

Are sleeping disorders neurological?

While many sleep disorders are neurological, they can also be caused by many other factors.

Is a sleep disorder considered a disability?

Most sleep disorders are not considered a disability, but some of them can be disabling if they’re severe enough.

Are sleep disorders hereditary?

The vast majority of sleep disorders have no genetic or hereditary component. You won’t pass them on to your children.

Can sleep disorders be treated?

Yes, in the majority of cases. Some also don’t need any treatment.

Conclusion: Is it Time to See Your Doctor?

If you think you might have a sleep disorder, talking to your doctor is the right choice. That way you can be tested, diagnosed, and treated properly. You don’t have to let a sleep disorder affect your rest or your quality of life.

Note: Getting treatment can mean better sleep and health overall, so don’t put off seeing a health professional or underestimate the power of a healthy diet and frequent exercise.