Understanding Sleep Disorders

Although most people experience periodic trouble sleeping, if sleep problems are a regular occurrence they can  have a negative impact on your energy, emotional balance, and health. If you’re experiencing regular sleeping problems, you may have a sleep disorder and should consider talking to your doctor about possible causes and solutions.

Understanding sleep disorders and sleeping problems

Is it a sleep disorder?

Do you. . .

  • feel sleepy during the day?
  • have difficulty staying awake when you are inactive, watching television, or reading?
  • doze off or feel very tired while driving?
  • have difficulty concentrating?
  • get told by others that you look tired?
  • react slowly?
  • have trouble controlling your emotions?
  • feel a desire to nap almost every day?
  • require caffeinated beverages several times during the day to keep yourself going?

If you answered “yes” to any of the previous questions, you may have a sleep disorder. Here are some of the more common sleep disorders.

Insomnia: A Nonspecific, Common Sleep Disorder

Insomnia basically means \”not sleeping.\” It may be caused by stress, anxiety, depression, an underlying health condition, or lifestyle choices. Once the root cause of insomnia is identified, it can be successfully treated, often without medications.

Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder in which your breathing temporarily stops during sleep. There are two types of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form, in which your airway collapses during sleep, cutting off the supply of air. In central sleep apnea, your brain simply stops telling your body to breath. People can have both types simultaneously. In both types of sleep apnea, your brain must awaken slightly to resume your breathing. This may happen hundreds of times a night, although you may be unaware of it, or you may blame it on other causes, such as insomnia or a need to urinate.

The most commonly prescribed treatment for sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), a pump and airmask system that blows air into your nose and mouth to keep your airway open and maintain your air supply. CPAP can treat all degrees and types of sleep apnea. Oral appliances have recently been recognized as effective for treating mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea. Lifestyle modifications such as weight loss, reducing alcohol consumption at night, and changing sleep position, are also recommended as adjunct therapy for sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea has been associated with numerous deadly health conditions, including coronary artery disease, heart attack, stroke, and even increased fatal car accidents. Most people with sleep apnea do not know they have it, often until it is too late.

Restless legs syndrome (RLS)

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a sleep disorder that causes your legs (or arms) to feel uncomfortable, tingly, or achy, resulting in an urge to move. This discomfort and attendant urges can make it hard for you to sleep. Sometimes, your legs may cramp or jerk on their own. RLS can affect you all day, but it tends to worsen at night and whenever you lie down.

RLS may be treated with medication.


Narcolepsy is an uncommon sleep disorder that causes daytime sleepiness and may result in \”sleep attacks\” that can occur even in the middle of tasks. Narcolepsy is due to a dysfunction of the brain mechanism that controls sleeping and waking.

Common signs and symptoms of narcolepsy include:

  • Dreams and visual or auditory hallucinations before you’re fully asleep
  • Weakness or loss of muscle control brought on by strong emotions
  • Immediate, intense dreams
  • Sleep paralysis, an inability to move when waking up or falling asleep

Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders can be caused by disruption of our normal sleep-wake cycle, called circadian rhythms. There are many potential causes for circadian rhythm disruption.

Jet lag sleeping problems

Jet lag is a temporary disruption in circadian rhythms caused by rapid travel across numerous time zones, resulting in visual and behavioral cues that disagree with your body\’s sense of its schedule. These cues may include things like light at the wrong time of day, or trying to remain awake when your body thinks you should be sleeping. Most people can get over jet lag in a few days, even if you crossed many time zones.

Shift work sleeping problems

Shift workers experience some of the worst chronic sleep disruptions of any segment of the population because their work schedule and biological clock are out of sync. Few people are able to fully adapt to shift work, and most shift workers suffer from chronic sleep deprivation.

To minimize your sleep disruption, try to get on a consistent schedule to the extent that\’s possible. When you have to change shifts, move later, not earlier. Create an artificial day-night cycle by getting exposure to bright, full-spectrum light when you are supposed to be awake, and using blackout shades, heavy curtains, or a facemask when sleeping.

Delayed sleep phase disorder

Delayed sleep phase disorder is when your circadian rhythm is delayed relative to the day-night cycle. For example, your body may not begin to feel tired until 2am, and want to sleep until 10 am or later. This is more than just a preference for being up late at night. No matter how hard you try, you just can\’t sleep before 2am or later. If allowed to, you will find a natural sleep cycle of your own.

Sometimes delayed sleep phase disorder is temporary, as is often the case with teens, but for people with persistent delayed sleep phase disorder, your doctor may recommend that you try to reset your biological clock with light therapy.

To learn more about sleep disorders and possible treatments, please call 303-703-8583 and schedule an appointment with Dr. Andy Fine in Littleton, CO.

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