Sleep Disorders And Their Treatment

By Nadia Khan

Updated February 16, 2020

Reviewer Erika Schad, LCP, CWLC


Sleeping is an essential part of life. When you don't get enough sleep, you can quickly become fatigued and irritable. Worse yet, sleep disorders can cause you to have serious medical, social, and personal problems that could last long after the sleep disruption is over, especially if you take too long to get treatment. If you're having problems related to sleep, it's important to seek help from a qualified professional. In the meantime, learning about the many types of sleep disorders can start you on a path towards understanding your sleep patterns so you can get treatment to resolve them.

Types of Sleep Disorders

According to the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, there are over 100 different sleep disorders. The individual disorders on the sleep disorders list each fall under one of the following categories:



Insomnia encompasses several distinct sleep disorders, each related to the inability to go to sleep and/or stay asleep. Some of these are also called sleep initiation and maintenance disorders (DIMS). People with DIMS not only have trouble sleeping, but their daytime functioning is also impaired. They may be unable to hold down a job, take care of family responsibilities, or even drive a car due to lack of alertness, inability to concentrate, and fatigue. Despite their fatigue, insomniacs are still unable to fall asleep because they suffer from hyperarousal.

Circadian Rhythm and Shift Work Disorders

Your circadian rhythms are regulated in your brain and influenced by periods of light and darkness as well as participation in engaging activities. The circadian cycle doesn't go by the clock. It also isn't tied to the sun unless you're exposed to its light. When your brain tells you that you need to be awake, you tend to be in a state of arousal. The circadian clock is internal and is determined by genetics. You can weaken this clock, though, by napping frequently during the day, having a job that requires you to move frequently between time zones or a shift work job, especially one with changing shifts.

Restless Leg Syndrome

In restless leg syndrome or periodic limb movement sleep disorders, the person's limbs twitch during the night and cause them to be in an aroused state. The best way to find out if you have this sleep disorder is to go to one of the sleep disorder clinics and be assessed by one of their seasoned doctors. They typically use polysomnography tests to determine if this is the cause of your inability to stay asleep.


When you suffer from parasomnia sleep disorders, you do abnormal activities while you're asleep. Some examples in this list of sleep disorders include: nightmares and sleep terror disorders, sleep eating disorder, sleep walking, sleep talking, confused arousals, sleep eating disorders, and REM behavior disorders (RBD). Night terrors are most prevalent among children. However, there are also other sleep disorders that are more common in children.

RBD sleep disorders are marked by unusual behaviors during sleep. Your muscles maintain their tone as if you were awake. This gives you the ability to act out your dreams as you sleep. You might have a twitching leg or you might behave in ways that are unsafe or cause injury to yourself and others around you.

Sleep eating disorders happen during the REM cycles as well. Again, your muscles are as toned as when you're awake. You eat as if you were awake but may fall asleep as you eat. Paralyzed sleep disorder is another type of parasomnia. It features the inability to move during the non-REM parts of sleep and is often accompanied by hallucinations.

Sleep Breathing Disorders

One of the most common sleep disorders is sleep apnea. What happens in obstructive sleep apnea is that the soft tissues of the airway collapse as you drift into sleep. Your airway is obstructed or shut off so that no air can go into or out of your lungs. You may snore, wake up gasping for air, or even have a stroke due to lack of oxygen. To answer the question 'which of the following sleep disorders is most strongly associated with obesity,' one only needs to look at the high prevalence of sleep apnea among the seriously overweight.


As the name suggests, hypersomnia means excessive sleepiness. It can come in the form of narcolepsy, excessive daytime sleepiness, or other sleep disorders. Sleeping too much can be just as harmful as sleeping too little.

Clinical Evaluation of Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorder clinics such as the California Center for Sleep Disorders are designed to assess sleep patterns and find out why sleep is inadequate. Since sleep variations are only disorders if they cause problems with anxiety or daytime functioning, the first thing you need to do is determine if your unusual sleep routine is actually a problem for you. A counselor can help you explore this subject before you check into the sleep clinic.

Once you enter the clinic, sleep disorder doctors run tests to determine what your sleep cycle is like, what disrupts it or extends it, and how it differs from that of 'good sleepers.' The doctors then can make recommendations for the treatments that are most likely right for you and pass on the treatment to other sleep specialists, counselors, and doctors.

Sleep Disorder Treatments

The type of sleep disorder treatments you need depend on the specific sleep disorder you have. Everyone has their own best sleep, which happens when their unique genetic makeup, their sleep drive, and the right opportunities to sleep all are aligned together.

Medical Equipment and Surgery

Sleep apnea can be treated with a CPAP, or continuous positive air pressure, machine. You breathe through the CPAP mask, while the device forces air into your airways to keep them open. Others opt for a sleep apnea surgery that can reduce the amount of tissue available to block the airways. Along with these medical interventions, you can also improve you sleep apnea by learning how to control your diet and exercise if you're obese.


Virtually everyone is familiar with sleeping pills that are often used to help people get to sleep and/ or stay asleep. Although these medications work for many people, others find that they actually diminish the quality of their sleep and interfere with normal sleep cycles.


Other medications are available for other sleep disorders as well. For example, stimulants, antidepressants and other medications have been used successfully to treat narcolepsy. A specific medication is on the market to help with restless leg syndrome as well.

If the sleep disorder has a genetic cause, medication may need to be continued for the long term. However, sleep problems that have developed due to situational factors may only need to be treated with medications for a brief time during which the person develops better thought patterns, more appropriate sleep behaviors, and a more sleep-friendly lifestyle.

Lifestyle Changes


One of the first things you'll need to do to improve your sleep may be to develop a healthier lifestyle. Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine, which can both keep you from falling asleep at the right time and may also disrupt your sleep during the night. If you must take medications for a physical or mental illness or condition, it would help to take them at the time of day when they'll be the least disruptive to your desired sleep pattern. Get plenty of exercise during the day so you're sleepy at night, but most sleep disorder doctors suggest you shouldn't work out right before bedtime as it can cause arousal. Getting out in the sunshine during times you want to stay awake is an effective way to decrease your desire to nap during the day.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective sleep disorder treatments. Individuals who want to improve their sleep talk to a counselor to identify issues that keep them from getting good quality sleep and find solutions to their sleep problems. They learn and practice techniques for changing their sleep cycles to develop sleep patterns that allow them to live the life they want to live.

Since anxiety and depression can negatively impact sleep, dealing with these conditions in a more adequate way can improve your sleep dramatically. You can learn not to worry as you try to fall asleep at night, allowing sleep to come peacefully. When your depression lessens, the desire to stay in bed too long will lessen, too, if you have that depression symptom. Exploring your personal and social disorders profoundly affects your sleep too. As you resolve traumas from your past and learn to deal with current stressors, sleep will come more naturally.

The main use of cognitive-behavioral therapy for sleep disorders, though, is to deal with the direct causes of your sleep disorder. Techniques like altering the light level in the morning and evening can help reset your sleep cycle. Dealing with behavioral issues like trying too hard to avoid insomnia can help you make your bed a space that's associated with sleep and not with anxiety about sleeplessness.

First Steps

If you're ready to get better sleep and feel more alert while you're awake, it's best to seek treatment as soon as possible. brings paid online therapy to you wherever you are. Licensed/certified counselors can help you figure out whether or not your sleep peculiarities are problematic. They can use cognitive behavioral therapy to help you improve your readiness and ability to make the changes necessary to get better sleep.

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