Sleep Disorders

Updated 30 July 2014

Symptoms of sleep disorders

Does your snoring keep your partner awake at night? Do you suffer from excessive daytime sleepiness? These symptoms may indicate that you have a sleep disorder.

Sleep is a mysterious thing that scientists still don’t fully understand. Everyone has to sleep, but people have very different needs when it comes to their daily rest.

Sleep problems are often the result of poor lifestyle or sleeping habits; sleep disorders (such as insomnia and sleep apnoea); or other medical conditions.

Some people need eight hours of sleep, others much less. Some people take a nap during the day and others don't because it keeps them awake at night. Some people sleep deeply, and others hover on the brink of consciousness.

But few things can affect your daily functioning in such a way as a sleep disorder – whether you’re getting too much, too little, whether you fall asleep all the time, whether your legs keep twitching while you’re sleeping, or you wake up with inexplicable injuries (the possible result of sleepwalking).

There are three categories of sleep disorders – with an example or two of each:
Lack of sleep (insomnia)
Disturbed sleep (sleep apnoea, restless leg syndrome)
Excessive sleep (narcolepsy)

Here’s more about the symptoms of a few common sleep disorders:

Daytime exhaustion
This can be a symptom of insomnia, which is an inability to fall asleep. Insomniacs often worry about not getting enough sleep, which increases anxiety levels and can worsen the problem. Diet, emotional problems, many medical conditions and several medications can cause insomnia. A lack of sleep can lead to poor functioning, which is often reflected in questionable judgement, poor co-ordination, bad memory and irritability. Depression can also lead to early morning waking.

Read: Irregular sleep patterns make you fat

This can also indicate sleep apnoea, which refers to interrupted breathing during sleep. It is often accompanied by loud snoring, and what sounds like gasping. The problem with sleep apnoea is that it can interrupt the sleep cycle up to 100 times per night, so it is no wonder that it leads to daytime fatigue.

And the same goes for restless leg syndrome which can also wake a patient up to three times per minute at night. 

Waking up unrefreshed
In a normal sleep cycle, the body alternates between deep and light sleep. If you are sleeping deeply, you experience rapid eye movement – often a sign that you are dreaming. If something is stopping you from entering the deep sleep cycle (such as REM sleep disorder, which can cause you to walk and talk in your sleep) you will feel unrefreshed in the morning. If you have slept for eight hours, but are still tired, you have a problem other than insomnia.

Occasional snoring is not a problem, but if it happens every night, and disrupts your own sleep and that of your partner, it could be a problem. Heavy snoring is the result of the airflow through the mouth and the nose being physically obstructed. A sinus infection or a deviation in the nasal wall can cause this. But when throat and tongue muscles relax too much, they collapse and fall back onto the airway. This leads to the interrupted breathing and gasping which is so characteristic of sleep apnoea. 

Read: Wrong amount of sleep tied to chronic disease

Daytime sleeping
Everyone has the occasional nap, but if you’re falling asleep at work or behind the wheel for no reason, it needs to be investigated. This is a sign that you’re unrested or that you could have narcolepsy, which could point to neurological problems. If you have no control over when you fall asleep (sometimes for as little as a minute or sometimes more than half an hour), you definitely need to see your doctor.

Jerking legs

People are generally unaware of jerking their legs when they're asleep. Restless leg syndrome is a genetic disorder and can cause sufferers to constantly wake up during the night.

Read more:
What are sleep disorders?
Types of sleeping disorders



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Sleep disorders expert

Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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