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What are Sleep Disorders? Common and Rare Types

Sleep disorders significantly disrupt normal sleep patterns, affecting health and daily life. They vary widely in symptoms and severity and can involve issues falling asleep, staying asleep, or maintaining a healthy sleep cycle. Let’s examine common and rare sleep disorders, exploring their causes, symptoms, and treatment options.
Author avatar: Andrew Jolie Andrew Jolie March 04, 2024 12 min read

They vary widely in symptoms and severity and can involve issues falling asleep, staying asleep, or maintaining a healthy sleep cycle. Let’s examine common and rare sleep disorders, exploring their causes, symptoms, and treatment options.

What are Sleep Disorders?

Sleep disorders are medical conditions that negatively impact a person’s ability to sleep well regularly. These sleep-wake disorders can lead to daytime fatigue, emotional distress, and reduced overall health. Frequent sleep disorders include insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless legs syndrome, while less common types include narcolepsy and REM sleep behavior disorder.

Most Common Sleep Disorders

They vary widely in symptoms and severity and can involve issues falling asleep, staying asleep, or maintaining a healthy sleep cycle. Let’s examine common and rare sleep disorders, exploring their causes, symptoms, and treatment options.

What are Sleep Disorders?

Sleep disorders are medical conditions that negatively impact a person’s ability to sleep well regularly. These sleep-wake disorders can lead to daytime fatigue, emotional distress, and reduced overall health. Frequent sleep disorders include insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless legs syndrome, while less common types include narcolepsy and REM sleep behavior disorder.

Most Common Sleep Disorders


Insomnia is the most widespread sleep disorder and it seriously disrupts the lives of those who suffer from it. People with insomnia often find it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep, or they wake up too early and can't get back to sleep. This ongoing struggle with sleep can take a heavy toll, leading to a decrease in overall quality of life. It drains energy, dampens mood, and diminishes the ability to focus, making everyday tasks more challenging. Over time, the constant fatigue can impair thinking and decision-making skills. Also, the stress of not being able to sleep well often escalates, potentially leading to anxiety and depression, which can make the insomnia even worse. It's a frustrating cycle that affects both mind and body.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. This condition leads to disrupted sleep, poor sleep quality, and excessive daytime fatigue. Over time, the frequent drops in blood oxygen levels during sleep episodes can strain the cardiovascular system. Consistent interruption in normal breathing increases the risk of developing high blood pressure (hypertension), which can subsequently elevate the chances of more severe health issues such as heart disease and stroke. Additionally, sleep apnea is associated with a higher risk of developing arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), which can further complicate cardiovascular health. The repeated awakening throughout the night, typical of sleep apnea, can also lead to severe fatigue, affecting cognitive functions, mood, and overall quality of life.

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) is a condition marked by an irresistible urge to move the legs, typically accompanied by uncomfortable sensations like itching, pulling, or throbbing. These symptoms often worsen during periods of inactivity, particularly at night when trying to rest. The persistent discomfort can make falling or staying asleep hard, leading to significant sleep disruption. As a result, people with RLS frequently experience daytime fatigue, impairing their ability to function effectively in daily tasks, reducing concentration, and diminishing overall life quality. The chronic lack of restorative sleep can also contribute to emotional issues such as irritability or depression, further impacting daily life and well-being.


Parasomnias are sleep disorders characterized by unusual behaviors, movements, emotions, perceptions, and dreams that can happen as one falls asleep, during sleep, between different sleep stages, or upon waking. Common types of parasomnias include sleepwalking, night terrors, and sleep paralysis.

Sleepwalking: Sleepwalking involves actions ranging from walking to complex behaviors during sleep, primarily occurring in children. Those affected are not aware during episodes and rarely remember them. Safety measures and a stable sleep schedule are crucial for those with frequent, potentially dangerous episodes.

Night Terrors: Night terrors are intense, frightening reactions that occur during deep sleep, mostly in children. Sufferers often scream and appear terrified, but they usually don't remember the episode. 

Sleep Paralysis: During sleep paralysis, individuals cannot move or speak when waking up or falling asleep, often experiencing hallucinations. Episodes are brief and harmless. 

These episodes can cause significant distress, though they are generally more frightening to observe than harmful to the person experiencing them.

Rare Sleep Disorders


Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that impacts the brain’s control over sleep and wakefulness. People with this condition often experience overwhelming daytime sleepiness and may fall asleep suddenly during typical daily activities. Additionally, some individuals with narcolepsy suffer from cataplexy, a sudden loss of muscle tone triggered by strong emotions such as laughter or surprise, which can make routine activities challenging. These episodes of unexpected sleep and muscle weakness can disrupt personal and professional life, requiring individuals to carefully manage their activities to ensure safety and effectiveness throughout their day.

REM Sleep Behavior Disorder

People with REM sleep behavior disorder often do not experience restorative sleep due to physically acting out their dreams. This can include moving limbs, talking, or even walking, which occurs during REM sleep when the body usually remains still. Such activities can be disruptive and potentially dangerous, impacting the overall sleep quality and posing a risk of injury.

What Causes Sleep Disorders?

Sleep disorders arise from various psychological, physiological, and environmental factors, each contributing to disruptions in normal sleep patterns in its own way.

Psychological Factors

  • Stress and Anxiety: Extended periods of stress and anxiety can lead to hyperarousal, a condition that keeps the brain overly active, making it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. Techniques like relaxation therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and sometimes medications are used to manage these conditions.
  • Depression: This mental health disorder is often accompanied by alterations in sleep patterns. Insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness) are common symptoms of depression. The underlying depression is often treated with a combination of therapy and medications.
  • Emotional Disorders: Emotional setbacks related to life events, such as grief or trauma, can also disrupt sleep, leading to disorders such as insomnia.

Physiological Factors

  • Chronic Pain: Conditions that cause chronic pain, such as arthritis or back pain, can make it challenging to find a comfortable position, interrupting normal sleep. Effectively managing the pain can help improve sleep quality.
  • Neurological Disorders: Disorders like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer's disease, and epilepsy can interfere with sleep due to brain structure or function anomalies. These conditions may require specific treatments to manage the neurological symptoms alongside sleep disruption.
  • Hormonal Imbalances: Hormonal changes, such as those during menopause, pregnancy, or thyroid issues, can lead to sleep disturbances. Hormone therapy or adjustments in medication can sometimes be beneficial.

Environmental Factors

  • Noise and Light: Exposure to loud noise or light during sleep can prevent or disrupt sleep. Solutions may include soundproofing, using blackout curtains, or eye masks to create a more conducive sleep environment. Sleep masks are a simple solution, but do they really work?
  • Technology Use: Blue light from screens on smartphones, tablets, and computers can interfere with melatonin production, the hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles. It is highly recommended that screen time be limited before bed.
  • Sleep Environment: An uncomfortable mattress or pillow, temperatures that are too high or too low, and even the presence of allergens can affect sleep quality. Optimizing the sleep environment is often the first step in treating sleep disorders.

Lifestyle Factors

  • Irregular Sleep Schedules: Shift work, irregular work hours, or frequent travel can lead to a disruption in the body’s natural circadian rhythms, resulting in sleep disorders. Establishing a routine, even within irregular schedules, can help.
  • Diet and Exercise: Caffeine, alcohol, and heavy meals consumed close to bedtime can disrupt sleep. Similarly, insufficient and excessive physical activity right before bedtime can impact sleep quality. Also sleep plays a critical role in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. Moderation and timing adjustments can be beneficial.

How are Sleep Disorders Diagnosed?

Diagnosing sleep disorders involves a combination of methods to accurately assess the nature and severity of the condition influencing an individual's sleep. Here is a short overview of the typical diagnostic process:

Medical History Evaluation:

  • Patient Interview: Discusses symptoms, health history, and lifestyle habits that might affect sleep, including questions about sleep schedules and any known health issues.
  • Family History: Looks at hereditary factors that could influence sleep disorders.

Physical Exams:

  • General Examination: Checks for physical signs that might indicate sleep disorders, such as enlarged neck circumference or signs of other health issues affecting sleep.
  • Neurological Examination: Assesses neurological function if a disorder like narcolepsy is suspected.

Sleep Studies:

  • Polysomnography: Conducted in a sleep lab, this study records brain waves, oxygen levels, heart rate, and breathing patterns throughout the night.
  • Home Sleep Tests: These monitor breathing, oxygen levels, and heart rate at home, and they are mainly used to diagnose sleep apnea.

Other Diagnostic Tools:

  • Actigraphy: Worn like a watch, it tracks movement and sleep-wake patterns, useful for diagnosing circadian rhythm disorders.
  • Sleep Diaries: Patients record sleep and wake times to identify patterns contributing to sleep issues.
  • Questionnaires: Tools like the Epworth Sleepiness Scale help quantify sleep quality and daytime sleepiness.

What is the Best Treatment for Sleep Disorders?

The management of sleep disorders is customized based on the particular type and intensity of the condition, typically employing a mix of medication-based and lifestyle-based interventions.

Non-Pharmacological Treatments:

  1. Improving Sleep Hygiene: Establishing routines that facilitate regular and rejuvenating sleep. Important practices include sticking to a consistent bedtime and wake-up time, ensuring the bedroom is quiet and dark, and reserving the bed for sleep and sex only.
  2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I): This program helps you pinpoint and change thoughts and actions that disrupt sleep, replacing them with habits that support good sleep. CBT-I focuses on resolving the fundamental causes of insomnia.
  3. Dietary Adjustments: Steering clear of caffeine, nicotine, and large meals before bedtime can enhance sleep quality. Limiting liquids before sleep is also recommended to reduce nighttime bathroom visits.
  4. Exercise: Regular exercise helps normalize sleep patterns, but it's important to avoid vigorous workouts close to bedtime as they can be counterproductive.
  5. Relaxation Techniques: Practices like deep breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation can help diminish stress and anxiety, which are often related to sleep disorders.
  6. Environmental and Behavioral Changes: This can include setting a comfortable bedroom temperature, reducing noise and light, and purchasing comfortable mattresses and pillows.

Pharmacological Treatments

  1. Prescription Medications: Depending on the type of sleep disorder, doctors may prescribe various medications such as sleeping pills, antidepressants, or drugs aimed at treating the specific symptoms of the disorder, like modafinil for narcolepsy or clonazepam for REM sleep behavior disorder.
  2. Over-the-Counter (OTC) Aids: OTC sleep aids typically contain antihistamines, which can help with occasional sleep disturbances but are not recommended for long-term use due to potential side effects like daytime drowsiness and cognitive impairment.
  3. Melatonin Supplements: These can be used to treat certain sleep disorders, particularly circadian rhythm disorders and some types of insomnia. Melatonin can help regulate the sleep-wake cycle, but it should be used under a doctor's supervision.
  4. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) Machines: For those with sleep apnea, CPAP machines keep airways open by providing a constant stream of air through a mask worn during sleep, significantly improving sleep quality.

Specialized Treatments

  1. Light Therapy: Used particularly for circadian rhythm disorders, light therapy involves exposure to intense but safe amounts of light for a specific and regular duration.
  2. Surgery: In cases where sleep disorders are caused by structural issues such as enlarged tonsils or a deviated septum (common in obstructive sleep apnea), surgical interventions might be necessary.

Holistic and Emerging Therapies

Emerging treatments such as acupuncture, essential oils, and other holistic approaches are being explored for their potential benefits in managing sleep disorders, although more research is needed to endorse these methods fully.

Effective treatment of sleep disorders requires a personalized approach that considers the individual’s symptoms, underlying causes, and lifestyle. Regular follow-ups with healthcare providers are crucial to adjust treatment strategies as needed to ensure optimal outcomes.

Interesting Facts about Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders are more than just nighttime disturbances—they are complex conditions that can profoundly impact health, lifestyle, and longevity. Here are some interesting facts about these conditions:

  • Insomnia's Varying Impact: Insomnia, the most common sleep disorder, can manifest as both a short-term and chronic issue. It affects approximately 10% to 30% of adults globally at various points in their lives. Short-term insomnia often arises from stress or temporary changes in routine, while chronic insomnia may be linked to underlying physical or mental health issues.
  • Prevalence of Sleep Apnea: Sleep apnea is a serious disorder characterized by breathing interruptions during sleep, which can lead to daytime fatigue and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The National Sleep Foundation reports that over 18 million Americans suffer from this condition, highlighting its significant public health impact.
  • Genetic Factors in Narcolepsy: Narcolepsy, a less common but severe sleep disorder, is strongly influenced by genetic factors. This condition, which causes people to experience overwhelming daytime drowsiness and sudden attacks of sleep, has been linked to specific genetic markers that impact sleep regulation.

FAQs about Sleeping Disorders

Can sleeping disorders be cured?

While some sleep disorders can be managed effectively with treatment, others may require ongoing management. Treatments can greatly alleviate symptoms and significantly improve quality of life, but a complete cure may not be possible for all types of disorders.

How do you live with a sleep disorder?

Living with a sleep disorder typically involves combinations of medical treatment, lifestyle adjustments, and support from health professionals. Regular monitoring and adapting treatment plans as needed are crucial for managing symptoms.

Is insomnia a sleep disorder?

Yes, insomnia is a type of sleep disorder characterized by difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or both. It is one of the most commonly reported sleep problems.

Which physical signs indicate potential sleep problems?

Common physical signs of sleep problems include excessive daytime sleepiness, irregular breathing or increased movement during sleep, difficulty falling asleep, and waking up often during the night.

Who is at risk for sleep-wake disorder?

Risk factors for sleep-wake disorders include people with a family history of sleep disorders, those undergoing significant stress, workers on rotating shifts, the elderly, and people with chronic medical or psychological conditions.

Do sleep disorders go away without treatment?

Some mild sleep disorders may improve with changes in sleep habits or lifestyle adjustments. However, most chronic and severe sleep disorders require treatment to improve and will not go away without appropriate medical intervention.

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