Sleep Disorders: Types And Treatments

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated March 24, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When you don't get enough sleep because of a hectic schedule or sleep disorders, you can experience daytime sleepiness and fatigue, irritability, trouble concentrating, poor decision-making, and slower reaction times.

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Are you having trouble sleeping through the night?

Sleep is an essential part of life and health, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that a third of US adults say that they usually get less than the recommended amount of sleep. 

Over the longer term, lack of sufficient, quality sleep could also increase your risk for serious health problems. That’s why seeking medical or mental health support for sleep problems can be important. Read on to learn about some common sleep disorders and the treatment options for each.

Why do I struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep?

Sleep disruptions can by caused by a range of physical and mental health concerns, lifestyle factors, and environmental influences. For some, trouble falling asleep and staying asleep can be caused by a mental health condition, like depression or anxiety. Physical health challenges, such as chronic pain or heart disease, can also lead to less restful sleep. Lifestyle factors like alcohol consumption, shift work, and nicotine use may also cause you to stay awake at night or experience worsened sleep quality. Sleep disorders, such as chronic insomnia, are another common contributor to difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Below, we’re discussing common sleep disorders and their symptoms. 

Types of sleep disorders

Researchers have identified over 80 different types of sleep disorders. Some are neurological disorders, some relate to physical health conditions, and others result from emotional challenges. Most types of sleep disorders fall under one of the following categories:

Insomnia

According to the American Psychiatric Association, insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, with over 30% of adults reporting at least some insomnia symptoms. Insomnia, which can be chronic, short-term, or transient, is the inability to fall asleep and/or stay asleep. It may also be referred to as a disorder of initiating and maintaining sleep (DIMS).

Circadian rhythm and shift work disorders 

Your circadian rhythms are internal patterns of sleep/wake cycles that are controlled in your brain. They're influenced by periods of light and darkness during day and night as well as participation in engaging activities. Your sleep/wake cycle can be disrupted by certain habits—including shift work or poor sleep hygiene—which can make it hard to fall and remain asleep. 

Restless leg syndrome

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a common condition that can lead to significant sleep disturbances. Having ‘restless legs’ at night means that one’s limbs may twitch during rest and cause them to be in an aroused state while they sleep, leading to decreased sleep quality. People with restless legs syndrome may feel aching or itching sensations in their legs when trying to sleep. However, the best way to determine if you may have restless legs syndrome is to go to a sleep disorder clinic for testing. 

Parasomnias

Individuals with this type of sleep disorder tend to engage in abnormal activities while asleep. Some examples of these sleep disorders include having nightmares or night terrors, sleep eating, sleep walking, sleep talking, and having confused arousals. Parasomnias can be very disruptive to a person’s rest, and those that occur frequently can hinder their ability to get quality sleep over the longer term. 

Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder, often causing sleep deprivation, excessive daytime sleepiness, and difficulty waking. According to the American Academy of Sleep Disorders, it affects around 30 million Americans—and an estimated 80% of cases are undiagnosed. Individuals with sleep apnea may find it easy to fall asleep, but the rest may not be of sufficient quality due to breathing difficulties. It usually presents as one of two types: Central sleep apnea, which typically results from conditions like heart failure or stroke. Obstructive sleep apnea, in which the soft tissues of the airway collapse as a person drifts into sleep. This may cause them to snore, wake up gasping for air, or in extreme cases, even have a stroke. Sleep apnea is also associated with sleep paralysis—a temporary state in which an individual struggles to move while experiencing consciousness. 

Hypersomnias

Hypersomnia refers to excessive sleepiness, which can be harmful in and of itself or represent an underlying condition. Those with sleep disorders categorized as hypersomnias may experience a number of symptoms, including sudden muscle weakness and sleep attacks, where a person falls asleep quickly and uncontrollably during the day. Narcolepsy is one example of a hypersomnia sleep disorder.

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Diagnosing sleep conditions

There may be various steps involved in receiving a diagnosis of this type of condition depending on which of the sleep disorders you may be experiencing. With insomnia, for example, reports of trouble falling asleep at least three times per week for a few months or more could be enough for a doctor to provide a diagnosis. In order to receive a diagnosis of sleep apnea, on the other hand, you may need to attend a sleep clinic and participate in a sleep study in some form so a specialist can see what’s going on while your body and mind are at rest. 

If you’re experiencing symptoms of chronic insomnia, sleep apnea, shift work disorder, or other sleep disorders, it’s usually recommended that you meet with a doctor or sleep specialist for an evaluation. They can conduct a physical exam to determine whether there may be an underlying health condition that needs to be addressed or other risk factors in your life that could be affecting how much sleep you’re getting. For example, if you’ve had sleep disorders diagnosed in the past, they may ask about the symptoms you experienced or the duration of the conditions. They may then provide a diagnosis, if applicable, and treatment options for the concerns you may be experiencing.

Seeking treatment

The type of sleep disorder treatment you may need depends on the specific sleep disorder or sleep disorders you might have. For most sleep disorders, lifestyle changes are recommended. Practicing good sleep hygiene and getting regular exercise, for example, could be good places to start. Additionally, the National Sleep Foundation recommends limiting alcohol when you’re living with a sleep disorder. To treat insomnia or certain other sleep disorders, a doctor may also recommend medication, such as various forms of sleep aids. However, some sleep medicine could actually interfere with sleep quality and have potential negative side effects, so it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional before taking one.

For those living with sleep disorders like sleep apnea, a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine may be recommended. It’s a device with a mask that you breathe through while sleeping, which forces air into your airways to keep them open. In more severe cases, surgery that reduces the amount of tissue available to block the airways could be an option as well. 

It’s also worth noting that therapy can be another potentially useful treatment for addressing the symptoms of many sleep disorders. For example, those who have trouble quieting their mind at night enough to rest or managing stress enough to relax may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It aims to help individuals learn to recognize distorted or harmful thought patterns that could lead to undesirable feelings and behaviors. In addition, those who are experiencing signs of a mental illness like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or others that commonly interfere with sleep could benefit from mental health treatment to address symptoms of sleep disorders or disturbances.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

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Are you having trouble sleeping through the night?

Addressing sleep quality through therapy

Therapy can be a helpful place to start for many people who are experiencing challenges related to getting quality sleep. A therapist can provide emotional support, useful insights, and tips for utilizing therapeutic resources (e.g., a sleep diary). However, someone who is living with regularly disrupted rest could find the prospect of locating and traveling to an in-person therapist daunting or even impossible. Online therapy may be considered as a convenient treatment alternative in cases like these.

With a platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from the comfort of home. Research suggests that online therapy may be one of the most effective non-pharmacological interventions for insomnia and related disorders, so this format could be worth considering for those who find it to be more convenient for addressing sleep disorders or other concerns. See below for reviews of BetterHelp counselors from clients who have faced similar challenges.

Counselor reviews

“When I first started therapy with Suzanne, I was dealing with intense anxiety that dominated all my waking hours, as well as insomnia that kept me up to average ~3 am most nights for over half a year. I was honestly skeptical of therapy since I have worked with six different therapists in the past (not through BetterHelp) and didn't feel it really worked for me. But Suzanne really changed my idea of therapy for the better. Since working with her, my mental health has improved immensely, and I've experienced a ton of healing in our time together... Suzanne, thank you so much for all the hard work that you do. It is an amazing skill to care and counsel. Thank you for changing my life!”

“Shameika provides me with a realistic, compassionate, but blunt approach to things, and I quite frankly need it! She listens, she understands, and I’ve enjoyed working with her so far.”

Takeaway

Sleep disorders can be difficult to live with, as they can impact so many elements of your day-to-day waking life and your overall health. If you’re experiencing symptoms of a sleep disorder, treatment methods may vary. That’s why it’s generally best to meet with a doctor and, in many cases, a mental health professional in order to address challenges related to sleep and sleep disorders.

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