Common Sleep Disorders and What Causes Them

Learn about the most common sleep disorders that are keeping people awake all over the world. You'll also learn more about the relationship between the mind and sleep.

Everyone has trouble sleeping occasionally, but when it becomes a pattern, it can be as devastating for your health as a disease like diabetes.

Poor sleep is among the many risk factors associated with heart disease, and leading experts say it contributes to over a million physical injuries and up to 100,000 premature deaths annually.

But the good news about sleep disorders is — once they’re diagnosed, they’re usually treatable. Could you have a sleep disorder?

Sleep Disorder Symptoms

A sleep disorder can be a primary condition or a side effect of other disorders.

According to the Mayo Clinic and other national institutes, sleep disorder symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Obesity or weight gain
  • Chronic pain
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Impaired academic or work performance
  • Mood disorders such as depression
  • Heart disease and more

Common Sleep Disorders

There are more than 70 professionally recognized sleep disorders. The most common include:


Insomnia is an umbrella term for the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep through the night. It can be idiopathic — having no known cause — or related to other conditions such as anxiety, stress or jet lag. The National Institutes of Health says behavioral insomnia, sleeplessness that leads to uncomfortable social behaviors, occurs in up to 25% of children.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

OSA causes pauses in breathing during sleep. When the brain senses that oxygen levels have dropped — sleep hypoventilation — it cues the body to wake and increases the workload on the heart. The result is poor sleep, and with time, some types of heart failure.

Sleep Behavior Disorder

People with sleep behavior disorder lack the usual paralysis during REM sleep, causing them to act dreams out physically. Symptoms include yelling, kicking, punching, jumping and grabbing. Sleep behavior disorders are a leading cause of sleep-related injury.

Circadian Rhythm Disorders

Sleep occurs in stages, and if one or more is disrupted, sleep is less refreshing. Circadian Rhythm Disorders include a wide of conditions affecting sleep phase, including:

  • Jet lag
  • Shift-work Sleep Disorder
  • Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder
  • Non-24-hour Sleep Phase Disorder

Because a phase disorder can affect any stage of sleep, it can be challenging to diagnose.

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)

Restless legs, or Willis-Ekbom disease, is characterized by a crawling sensation in legs at sleep time. It’s a legs syndrome relieved only by moving — sufferers often spend the early part of most nights pacing. The cause is unknown, but the latest research suggests it could be related to iron malabsorption.


Parasomnias are disorders that cause abnormal behavior during sleep — most are associated with specific sleep states and include:

  • Sleepwalking
  • Sleep talking
  • Nightmares and night terrors
  • Bedwetting
  • Jaw grinding, or bruxism
  • Sleep paralysis and more

Some parasomnias, such as sleep talking, are disruptive but not dangerous. Others, such as sleepwalking, can be a safety concern — especially for seniors and children.


Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder distinguished by sudden sleep attacks. Sufferers may fall into REM sleep uncontrollably under any circumstances — while at work, driving or taking care of children. And some experience sleep paralysis or cataplexy — sudden physical collapse provoked by laughter or strong emotions.

Major institutes of health call narcolepsy rare — it affects fewer than 30,000 people in the United States, but for those it does, it can be a debilitating condition.

Final Thoughts

Good sleep is an essential part of health — it improves immune function, boosts cognition and enhances mood. If you suspect you have a sleep disorder, see a doctor for prompt treatment.

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