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By: Rita Brooks on July 24th, 2017

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How to Diagnose & Treat the 5 Most Common Sleep Disorders

Sleep Disorders

Having trouble sleeping is commonly reported throughout the world. According to the American Sleep Association (AMA), sleep disorders currently affect as many as 50 to 70 million U.S adults, and insomnia is the most commonly reported.

As a sleep technologist, you should know that if your patients are unable to sleep, it can get them down. It can also be very dangerous. AMA reports that drowsy driving is responsible for as many as 1,550 deaths and 40,000 injuries per year on America’s roads.

Thankfully, there are treatments available that you can talk to your patients about for the five most common sleep disorders:

  • Insomnia
  • Sleep Apnea
  • Narcolepsy
  • Restless Legs Syndrome
  • and REM Sleep Behavior Disorder.

In this article, we look at the diagnosis and treatment of these sleep disorders.

In order to get an official diagnosis, it’s crucial that patients seek medical advice from a sleep physician if they recognize that they or someone they love is exhibiting any symptoms of these five conditions. The information below relating to diagnosing sleep disorders is for educational purposes only.


Insomnia is the term for a difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep. There are two different types of insomnia. Transient or short-term insomnia and chronic insomnia.

  1. Transient or Short-Term Insomnia. This type of insomnia often occurs in the aftermath of a stressful life event — for example, losing a loved one or going through relationship issues. It can also happen if you work shifts or have jet lag. You might be unable to relax, experience disturbed sleep, and may be unable to pinpoint any real reason for your inability to sleep.
  2. Chronic Insomnia. Chronic insomnia is characterized by experiencing non-restorative sleep, having difficulty falling asleep and maintaining sleep for at least one month. You feel exhausted during the day. If you have chronic intermittent insomnia, you experience a sleeping pattern where you have a few nights of good sleep alternating with many nights of insomnia.

There are various reasons you can develop insomnia. These include:

  • Poor sleep hygiene
  • Sleep-related breathing disorders
  • Medical conditions
  • Disrupted sleep-wake schedule
  • Hormonal changes
  • Limb movements during sleep
  • Circadian rhythm disorders

Common Symptoms of Insomnia

You could have insomnia if:

  • You can’t sleep even when you’re tired.
  • You can’t get enough sleep to feel well-rested and refreshed.
  • You experience restless sleep and are exhausted when you awaken.

You’ll be unable to concentrate and will feel tired and irritable. Your quality of life and social life may be affected. You may also suffer from headaches, tense muscles, and gastrointestinal symptoms.

Common Treatment Types for Insomnia

Medications tailored to your own specific needs are prescribed. For instance, if anxiety or depression are the underlying cause of your condition, your physician may prescribe you with antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. Medications for sleep can be used as well, but are typically prescribed to be used on a short-term or as-needed basis.

Non-medical methods, such as cognitive behavior therapy, hypnosis, sleep restriction, stimulus control, and relaxation techniques, can also be used to treat insomnia. Lifestyle changes, such as avoiding caffeine and alcohol, are also advised.

Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious yet common sleep disorder. Your airway repeatedly becomes blocked, and you’ll stop breathing. When this occurs, you might make choking noises or will snore loudly. You wake up as your body and brain are oxygen deprived. You may find this happens once or twice a night. However, it can happen hundreds of times a night in severe cases.

Common Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

You could have sleep apnea if:

  • You wake up during the night with a dry or a sore throat.
  • You snore loudly.
  • You wake up from time to time gasping or choking.
  • You feel extremely sleepy during the day.
  • You lack energy in general.
  • You suffer from headaches.
  • You feel tired and irritable.

Common Treatment Types for Sleep Apnea

There are various ways sleep apnea can be treated, including:

CPAP Therapy. A CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure therapy) machine is used to keep your airways open as you sleep. The machine uses mild air pressure and is attached to a mask or prongs that fit in your nose.

Alternatives. There are other alternatives if you don’t like the idea of wearing a mask to bed. You can choose to:

  • Wear a dental or oral appliance. To find out more, this article, Pros and Cons of Dental Sleep Apnea Treatment Devices, provides the ways in which an oral appliance can help patients with sleep apnea, as well as the shortcomings of a using a dental device for sleep apnea.
  • Have surgery. If oral appliances and CPAP don’t work for you, surgery is an option.
  • Undergo a weight management program. Losing weight may help improve or eliminate your symptoms if you’re obese or overweight.
  • Try positional therapy. Some people primarily suffer from sleep apnea when they sleep on their back. Positional therapy often involves wearing a device that keeps you sleeping on your side.


Narcolepsy causes you to suddenly fall asleep at any time no matter where you are. Often times, you fall asleep uncontrollably during unusual circumstances, such as while eating. People with narcolepsy are unable to regulate their sleep-wake cycle.

Common Symptoms of Narcolepsy

You could have narcolepsy if:

  • You fall asleep without warning.
  • You feel very drowsy during the day.
  • You suffer from sleep paralysis.
  • You experience cataplexy (temporary loss of muscle control that makes you feel weak or could make you collapse. Cataplexy is usually a response to emotions like anger or laughter).
  • Hallucinations as you transition from wake to sleep (hypnagogic) or from sleep to wake (hypnopompic).
  • Insomnia and disturbed nighttime sleep.

Common Treatment Types for Narcolepsy

Treatment is via scheduled naps and medication. To find out more, read Do I Have Narcolepsy? How Polysomnography and MSLT Help Us To Understand.

Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) presents as an uncontrollable urge or desire to maneuver your legs while you’re resting. You could also experience unpleasant aching, tingling, burning, and a feeling that something is crawling in your calves. Sometimes you feel these uncomfortable sensations in other body parts.

Common Symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome

You could have restless legs syndrome if:

  • You feel strong urges to move your legs.
  • You suffer from a crawling sensation or ache in your legs.
  • Your symptoms are worse when you’re inactive.
  • Your symptoms get worse at night.
  • You find some relief from your symptoms when you stretch, walk, or move.

Common Treatment Types for Restless Legs Syndrome

Medications and behavioral therapy can be used to treat RLS. Take a look at Treatment of Restless Legs Syndrome and Periodic Limb Movement Disorder for more information on RLS and its related disorder, Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD).

REM Sleep Behavior Disorder

When you have REM sleep behavior disorder, you act out your dreams while you sleep. You lack the muscle paralysis most people experience while asleep. When the condition causes danger to you or anyone around you, it’s taken particularly seriously.

Common Symptoms of REM Sleep Behavior Disorder

You could have REM sleep behavior disorder if:

  • You move your limbs in your sleep.
  • You shout, talk, hit, punch, scream, and more while asleep.

Common Treatment Types for REM Sleep Behavior Disorder

REM sleep behavior disorder is commonly treated with medications. Injury prevention is key if you're affected.

Key Takeaways

It’s crucial to seek professional help if you’re experiencing sleep problems and feel you recognize any of the symptoms above are happening to you. To summarize:

  • Sleep disorders are very common in the U.S. today.
  • Insomnia is characterized by being unable to sleep when you’re tired, feeling exhausted when you wake up, and you can’t get enough sleep to feel well-rested.
  • Insomnia is treated with medications as well as with non-medical methods, such as cognitive behavior therapy and lifestyle changes.
  • Sleep apnea is characterized by heavy snoring and waking up at night gasping or choking.
  • Sleep apnea can be treated in a variety of ways, including CPAP therapy, weight loss, surgery, positional therapy, and by wearing an oral or dental appliance.
  • Narcolepsy is characterized by falling asleep suddenly no matter where you are.
  • Narcolepsy is treated with medication and scheduled naps.
  • Restless legs syndrome is characterized by an uncontrollable urge to move your limbs (legs) while you’re resting at night. You could also be in pain and feel an uncomfortable crawling sensation.
  • Medications and behavioral therapy can significantly help you if you have RLS.
  • REM sleep behavior disorder can be dangerous. You live out your dreams at night and can kick out, shout, and talk. You may inadvertently hurt yourself, your sleeping partner, or someone else in your household. The condition must be diagnosed and treated without delay.
  • Treatment for REM sleep behavior disorder is treated with medications alongside injury prevention.

It can be frightening and bewildering for your patients when they suffer from a sleep disorder. A sleep disorder can make them feel irritable, exhausted, and alone. Their bed partner could be angry with them as they don’t understand what is happening to their loved one. Their home, work, and social life might suffer. As you have read above, the good news is there are help and treatment available.