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Treating Adult Sleep Disorders

What You Should Know About Sleep Disorders

Nearly everyone has had a sleepless night. For some, disrupted sleep is a constant problem that produces nagging and sometimes dangerous daytime effects. Many disorders can disrupt sleep, including insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome, periodic limb movement disorder, and circadian rhythm disorders.


Insomnia refers to the inability to fall asleep, stay asleep, or both. As a result, the affected person doesn't feel rested. Insomnia is the most common of all sleep-related complaints and may be the main symptom of several different sleep disorders.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition in which the airway partially closes during sleep. Usually, this is related to the tongue and soft palate relaxing downward in the back of the throat. This obstruction can lead to loud snoring and episodes of blocked breathing that can occur hundreds of times each night. As a result, the affected person may feel tired, irritable, and less able to concentrate and remember during the day. The person's work may suffer, and the risk of accidents and mistakes may rise. In addition, sleep apnea is associated with hypertension, heart attack, and stroke. In children, sleep apnea may lead to hyperactivity and increased bed-wetting. Eighteen million Americans have sleep apnea, but many don't even know it. Commonly, a family member brings it to the attention of a health care provider by complaining about the person's snoring or interrupted breathing pattern during sleep. Excess weight, alcohol, and sleeping pills raise the risk of sleep apnea.


A person with narcolepsy falls asleep at unusual times during the day for seconds or minutes at a time. These periods of sleep may occur while the person is doing almost anything - reading, watching television, even driving. Some people with narcolepsy have a sudden loss of muscle tone in the face or limbs in response to emotions, such as laughter, anger, or surprise.

Restless Leg Syndrome

This condition usually occurs when a person is lying in bed attempting to sleep. Affected people describe having a restless, uncomfortable feeling in their lower legs. Restless leg syndrome can make it very difficult for a person to fall asleep. Restless leg syndrome can run in families.

Periodic Limb Movement Disorder

In this disorder, the legs, arms, or both, move during sleep, which may cause frequent, brief interruptions of sleep.

Circadian Rhythm Disorders

Normally, people have an internal 24-hour sleep/wake cycle referred to as circadian rhythm. It prompts people to fall asleep at night and to be wake during the day. A circadian rhythm disorder is suspected when someone has trouble falling asleep at typical sleeping times or is falling asleep at times when he/she should be awake. The internal clock of someone with circadian rhythm disorder may tell the person to fall asleep too early in the evening or too late at night.

Diagnosing a Sleep Disorder

If you think you have a sleep disorder, your doctor will do a complete history and physical examination and may ask family members about your sleep habits. Based on this information, the doctor may then recommend a sleep study. A sleep study is a painless test that monitors your sleep through the night. It's performed in a sleep lab, which is a specialized facility staffed by health care providers and sleep disorder specialists.

During a sleep study, your breathing, heart rate, oxygen level, eye movement, and brain waves are monitored. From this information, your doctor can determine whether your sleep is interrupted or inadequate. It also gives the doctor enough information to recommend treatment if you have a sleep problem.

Treatments and Tips

Treatment varies depending on which sleep disorder you have. If you have sleep apnea, you may use a machine called CPAP that produces a continuous pressure inside your throat to help keep it open while you sleep. Your treatment probably will also include a sleep hygiene plan to increase the likelihood of successful sleep. It may include regular exercise, maintaining a regular sleeping schedule, avoiding stimulants such as caffeine, avoiding alcohol before bed, and avoiding large meals before bed. It may also help to establish a comfortable, quiet, dark sleeping environment.