Sleeping disorders

Some 2% of Brits are estimated to suffer from sleep apnoea and 10% from insomnia, and counting sheep is not a cure.

Girl resting her chin on her pillow

Do I have a sleep disorder?


Narcolepsy is a disabling disorder of sleep regulation that affects the control of sleep and wakefulness. It may be described as an intrusion of the dream sleep into the waking state.

People with narcolepsy can fall asleep at anytime be it while at work, talking, or driving a car. These ‘sleep attacks’ can last from 30 seconds to more than 30 minutes. They may also experience loss of muscle tone ranging from buckling at the knees to a complete limpness throughout the body.

The prevalence of narcolepsy has been calculated at about 0.03% of the general population. Its onset can occur at any time throughout life, but its peak onset is during the teen years. Narcolepsy has been found to be hereditary along with some environmental factors.


  • Excessive daytime sleepiness.
  • Sudden, brief episodes of muscle weakness or paralysis brought on by strong emotions such as laughter, anger, surprise or anticipation.
  • Paralysis upon falling asleep or waking up.
  • Vivid dreamlike images that occur at sleep onset.
  • Disturbed night time sleep, including tossing and turning in bed, leg jerks, nightmares, and frequent awakenings.

Diagnosis and treatment: There is no cure for narcolepsy; however, the symptoms can be controlled with behavioural and medical therapy.

If not properly diagnosed and treated, narcolepsy may have a devastating impact on the life of the affected individual, causing social, psychological, and financial difficulties.

Sleep Apnoea

Sleep Apnoea (SA) is a disorder of breathing during sleep. Typically it is accompanied by loud snoring. Apnoea during sleep consists of brief periods throughout the night in which breathing stops.

People with sleep apnoea do not get enough oxygen during sleep. It can cause morning headaches, high blood pressure, depression, difficulty concentrating, reduced libido and rapid weight gain.

With SA you must wake up briefly to breathe, sometimes hundreds of times during the night. Usually there is no memory of these brief awakenings.


  • Very sleepy during the day.
  • Breathing stops frequently during sleep, although sufferers are usually unaware of this.

Diagnosis: The risks of undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnoea include heart attacks, strokes, impotence, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure and heart disease. In addition, obstructive sleep apnoea causes daytime sleepiness that can result in accidents, lost productivity and interpersonal relationship problems.


The best known of the sleep disorders, insomnia comes in three guises: difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, and waking up too early. For causes of insomnia see here. Transient insomnia (lasting for a few nights) and short-term insomnia generally occur in people who are temporarily experiencing one or more of the following:

  • stress
  • environmental noise
  • extreme temperatures change in the surrounding environment
  • sleep/wake schedule problems such as those due to jet lag medication side effects

Chronic insomnia (lasts a month or longer)

Chronic insomnia often results from a combination of factors, including underlying physical or mental disorders. One of the most common causes of chronic insomnia is depression.

Physical causes include arthritis, kidney disease, heart failure, asthma, and restless legs syndrome

Behavioural factors include the misuse of caffeine, alcohol, or other substances; shift work or other night time activity schedules; and chronic stress.

Treatment: Transient and short-term insomnia may not require treatment since episodes last only a few days at a time.

Treatment for chronic insomnia consists of diagnosing and treating underlying medical or psychological problems, then identifying behaviours that may worsen insomnia and stopping (or reducing) them.

Treatment may also involve sleeping pills, although not advised for long-term use.

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Updated on 29-Sep-2015