According to the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, about 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep problem. Among them, nearly 60 percent have a chronic disorder.
There are 80 identified sleep disorders including sleep apnea, narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome and conditions causing insomnia:
- Sleep Apnea: People with sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep, usually for a minute or longer and as many as hundreds of times during a single night.
- Narcolepsy: People with narcolepsy fall asleep uncontrollably throughout the day for periods lasting less than a minute to more than half an hour. These episodes can occur at any time, even while the person is engaged in an activity. Narcoleptics may also suffer cataplexy (sudden loss of muscle tone), temporary paralysis, and hallucinations.
- Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS): People with RLS experience crawling or aching sensations in the calves of their legs that can be relieved by movement. These sensations prevent the person from falling asleep until the early hours of the morning, when the condition is less intense.
- Insomnia: People with insomnia have difficulty falling asleep or remaining asleep.
Many people suffer from more than one sleep problem. Sleep deprivation may account for as many as 100,000 auto accidents each year in the U.S.
Sleep Disorder: Symptoms
The following symptoms may indicate a sleep disorder:
- Inability to stay awake during the day
- Inability to fall asleep or stay asleep at night
- Sleepiness at inappropriate times during the day
- Prominent snoring
- Gasping or choking during sleep
- Restless, uncomfortable legs in the evening or at night
- Sexual dysfunction
- Unusual events occurring during sleep (e.g., sleep walking, sleep talking, and nightmares)
Sleep Disorder: Diagnosis
Keeping a sleep diary is easy and a great way to help your doctor learn about the quality of your sleep and how it affects you each day. Use it to record your sleep patterns and activity for one or two weeks. The medications you take, the length of time you spend in bed, and the quality of your sleep are important factors for your neurologist to consider when diagnosing a sleep disorder. Also, you may want to jot down the observations of your sleep partner or other family members who may have witnessed sleep patterns that you may not recall.
Your patient care team will likely want to evaluate both your medical history and your psychological history. Since insomnia is frequently associated with mood or affective disorders, a psychological profile can be helpful in isolating causes for sleep disturbance.
Additionally, there are a number of sleep tests that your doctor may request that can be conducted overnight in a sleep laboratory (or perhaps in your home with portable instruments). For example, if your doctor suspects a breathing-related sleep disorder such as sleep apnea, he or she may request a polysomnography to monitor specific physiological functions such as pulse rate, nasal airflow, chest movement, and arterial oxygen saturation.
A multiple sleep latency test (MSLT) may also be requested to measure the severity of your daytime sleepiness. The MSLT measures the speed at which you fall asleep during a series of planned naps throughout the day. It also measures the amount of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep you experience.
Likewise, a repeated test of sustained wakefulness (RTSW) may be used to gauge your ability to stay awake. During this test, you will be placed in a quiet room with dim lighting and asked to stay awake.
Once the cause of your sleep disturbance is identified, your patient care team can begin to formulate a program for treating the disorder.
Sleep Disorder: Treatment
There are many methods of treating sleep disorders, from drugs to over-the-counter medication, to herbal remedies, and in some cases surgery. Treatment for a sleep disorder depends on what is causing the disorder.
For example, sometimes a simple change in environment and lifestyle can provide effective treatment for insomnia sufferers. By controlling light and noise levels in their bedroom, reducing consumption of caffeine or other stimulants, and adopting a regular schedule for sleep, insomniacs can find the relief that comes from a good night’s rest.
Other disorders, such as sleep apnea, are treated by having the patient lose weight and by the administration of air under pressure through the nose when the patient sleeps. Occasionally, surgery or other measures may be needed. People who have sleep apnea have a greater risk for heart disease and stroke, so controlling this disorder is particularly critical.
Narcolepsy, often a genetic disorder, is usually treated with stimulants. Disorders involving sleepwalking are typically treated with psychoanalysis and counseling.
In most cases, sleep disorders can be easily managed once they are properly diagnosed.
Sleep Disorder: Resources
American Academy of Sleep Medicine
2510 North Frontage Road
Darien, IL 60561
American Insomnia Association
One Westbrook Corporate Center, Suite 920
Westchester, IL 60154
American Sleep Apnea Association
6856 Eastern Avenue NW, Suite 203
Washington, DC 20012
National Center on Sleep Disorders Research
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
P.O. Box 30105
Bethesda, MD 20824-0105
National Sleep Foundation
1522 K St. N.W., Suite 500
Washington, DC 20005