Common Sleep Disorders

A wide array of conditions

Sleep disorders can have a big impact on your life, and millions of people are living with them. They can make for frustrating nights, difficult mornings, and impaired function throughout the day.

Woman laying awake in bed
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Some of the most common sleep disorders include:

  • Insomnia 
  • Snoring and sleep apnea
  • Parasomnias
  • Sleep paralysis
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Circadian disorders
  • Narcolepsy

Other disorders where sleep disturbances figure prominently include:

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Jet lag
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Sleep disorders may be caused by physical or psychological factors. Nearly 100 different ones have been recognized and defined by the medical community.


Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, affecting about 10% of adults chronically and 25 percent of adults acutely. It makes you unable to get enough sleep to feel rested and leaves you yawning all day.

Insomnia can take many forms. Some people have trouble falling asleep, which is defined as spending more than 20 to 30 minutes in bed before dozing off. Others wake up frequently and can't get back to sleep.

Insomnia can be either acute (short term) or chronic (long term). You can be diagnosed with chronic insomnia if your problem occurs at least three nights per week for at least three months.

Several other types of insomnia exist, including fatal familial insomnia—a rare type that, as its name suggests, runs in families and can make people unable to sleep for long enough that it can threaten or even end their lives. 

Effective treatments for many types of insomnia include cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) and the limited use of sleeping pills.

Snoring and Sleep Apnea

Snoring may seem benign. It happens because the throat is closing during sleep. If the throat closure is bad enough to cut off breathing for a few seconds, it's snoring's more serious cousin, sleep apnea, which is a chronic and potentially serious medical condition.

A person with sleep apnea may stop breathing for 10 seconds or longer, multiple times per hour. That makes the oxygen levels in your blood drop, and when your body senses that going on, it pulls you out of deep sleep to get you breathing again.

Breathing interruptions, or apneas, can be caused by an obstruction of the upper airway, which is called obstructive sleep apnea; or by the brain periodically failing to keep you breathing, which is called central sleep apnea (because it stems from the central nervous system).

Sleep apnea and the poor sleep it leads to can cause and worsen other medical conditions, including hypertension, heart failure, and diabetes. It can also lead to serious consequences such as a heart attack or heart failure, stroke, and sudden death.

Sleep apnea is typically diagnosed with a sleep study, also called polysomnography. The good news is that you do have effective treatments to choose from.


From the Latin meaning "around sleep," parasomnias are sleep disorders characterized by abnormal sleep behaviors.

Parasomnias involve abnormal, behavioral, or physiological events that occur with specific stages of sleep. Common forms include: 

However, any number of potential behaviors can occur while the person remains asleep.

The underlying cause of parasomnias may be another sleep condition, such as sleep apnea. In that case, treating the underlying condition may stop the behavior.

Other treatments may include:

  • Safety precautions, such as locking or alarming doors and windows in case of sleepwalking
  • Medications, including melatonin or clonazepam

Sleep Paralysis

Imagine waking up in the morning and being unable to move. As you might imagine, sleep paralysis can be terrifying! 

It can happen during any transition between sleep and being awake, either as you drift off or as you wake up. Some people also have hallucinations, which can be frightening—such as a stranger standing over you and trying to hurt you—or confusing even if they're mundane, because you may think something happened when it didn't.

Sleep paralysis is fairly common, affecting about 25% of normal people at least once in their lives. It can also be a symptom of narcolepsy. Episodes typically last only a few minutes, as your brain naturally either wakes up or falls asleep more fully.

Just knowing what's going on can make this condition less scary. In rare cases, doctors may prescribe antidepressant medications to decrease the frequency of the paralysis episodes.

Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a neurological movement disorder characterized by unpleasant feelings in the legs associated with a need to move. These sensations may include:

  • Aches
  • Burning
  • Tingling
  • Like bugs crawling on the legs

Typically, symptoms come on when you're resting, sleeping, or trying to fall asleep. They can make it difficult to fall asleep, bring you out of deep sleep, or wake you from sleep. The end result is often too little quality rest.

Moving your legs can help relieve the sensations. Stretching, walking, or rubbing your legs may be good options.

RLS has many potential causes, including iron deficiency, pregnancy, and obesity. It may be associated with another movement disorder called periodic limb movements of sleep (PLMS).

RLS treatments include iron replacement (if deficiency is the cause) or medications.

Circadian Rhythm Disorders

Circadian rhythm disorders are conditions that may result from your internal biological clock being out of sync with external time cues, including the natural dark-light cycle.

The cause of being out of sync can include:

The mismatch may lead to insomnia or excessive sleepiness (hypersomnia) at inappropriate times.

Treatments include properly timed light exposure, melatonin, and adherence to a regular sleep-wake schedule.


Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness. This can be profound and may lead to falling asleep in inappropriate situations, such as while working or driving a car. 

It is often accompanied by these additional symptoms:

  • Cataplexy: Often described as a "sudden loss of muscle tone," what cataplexy does is make you physically collapse, often in response to things like being startled, getting excited, laughing, or experiencing a strong emotion. If you're standing, your knees may buckle or you may fall to the ground and be unable to move for a few minutes.
  • Sleep paralysis: As described above, this is an inability to move upon waking or while falling asleep, during which you're fully alert.
  • Hypnagogic hallucinations: These are hallucinations that occur while you're trying to fall asleep. It's as if you're dreaming while also alert and aware of your surroundings. They're often frightening and can include visual, auditory, or tactile sensations.

This potentially dangerous and downright scary condition is believed to be caused by the lack of a brain chemical called hypocretin, which promotes wakefulness and maintains muscle tone. This lack may be due to an autoimmune process, genetics, brain tumors or lesions, or other damage to the brain.

Narcolepsy is treated with medications, including:

  • Stimulants to keep you awake during the day
  • Sodium oxybate (Xyrem) to improve sleep
  • Antidepressants to moderate symptoms

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS or ME/CFS) is not defined as a sleep disorder, but it has much in common with them. It's characterized by:

This disease is often described as coming down with the flu and never getting better. It can be severe and incapacitating, making some people unable to even get out of bed.

Much remains to be learned about ME/CFS, but the causes are believed to include:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Immune system abnormalities
  • Central nervous system dysfunction
  • Certain infections
  • Exposure to toxins

ME/CFS is difficult to diagnose and other medical conditions, including sleep apnea and sometimes narcolepsy, should be ruled out before it's considered.

Treatments can include:

  • Antidepressants (to correct neurochemical imbalances)
  • Stimulants
  • Antiviral or antifungal medications
  • Supplements
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy and graded exercise therapy (which are highly controversial approaches)

Jet Lag

Jet lag is a temporary condition caused by rapid travel across time zones—as may occur with long jet trips. It can leave you with symptoms resulting from disruption of your internal circadian rhythm, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea

Jet lag may be improved with the passage of time, typically one day for each time zone you've traveled through. So, for example, if you travel from New York to California, you should expect to feel better in about three days.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a recurrent depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern. Its prominent symptoms are those of major depression and often includes excessive sleepiness during the winter months.

SAD is often treated by the use of a light box, which simulates sunlight, to artificially extend the length of time you're exposed to daylight. Other treatments include:

  • Exercise
  • Antidepressants
  • Psychotherapy

A Word From Verywell

If you feel like you have symptoms of a sleep disorder, talk to your doctor about it. They may refer you to a board-certified sleep physician for an evaluation or testing. A diagnosis and effective therapy may have you sleeping and feeling better in no time.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • "The International Classification of Sleep Disorders." American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 3rd edition, 2014.
  • Kryger, MH et al. "Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine." Elsevier, 6th edition.