Sleep disorders

Sleep conditions are more common than you might think. Some 2% of Brits are estimated to suffer from sleep apnoea and 10% from insomnia. But what exactly is a sleep disorder, and how do you know if you have one or if you’ve just had a bad night’s sleep? Read on to learn how to spot sleep disorders symptoms and learn about treatments for some of the more common ones. 

Two young people are standing in the street, talking about finding support for sleep disorders


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

People with narcolepsy can fall asleep at any time, 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.

Symptoms of narcolepsy:

  • 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 of narcolepsy:

There is no permanent cure for narcolepsy, but you can treat the symptoms with behavioural therapy and modern drugs.

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. The most common type is called obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), and it is typically 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.

Symptoms of sleep apnoea:

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

Diagnosis of sleep apnoea:

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.

REM sleep behaviour disorder

Those who suffer from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep behaviour disorder physically act out vivid dreams or nightmares with vocal sounds and sudden, often violent arm and leg movements when they reach the REM part of their sleep cycle. This is sometimes called dream-enacting behaviour.

Diagnosis of REM sleep behaviour disorder: 

You might be recommended an overnight study in a sleep lab where they can monitor the activity of various organs and record your movement during REM sleep. If possible, any of your bed partners might be asked to fill out a questionnaire about your sleep behaviour.


Probably the best known sleep condition, insomnia, comes in three guises: difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, and waking up too early. 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

Learn more about insomnia in our article ‘what is insomnia’.

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. If you’re worried you might have depression, see our article ‘what is depression’ or speak to our team if you want someone to talk to about it.

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

Behavioural factors include the misuse of caffeine, alcohol, or other substances; shift work or other night time activity schedules; and chronic stress. Coeliacs or people with a sensitivity to gluten may also suffer from insomnia when they eat wheat related products. 

Treatment for insomnia:

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, though this is not advised for long-term use.

More help with sleeping disorders

Having a few nights of broken sleep isn’t unusual, but if you think you have any of the sleep conditions above, book an appointment with your GP. If you find you’re falling asleep ok but are having lots of dreams and nightmares, you can learn more about them here.

How and when you feel sleepy depends on your sleep/wake cycle, also known as your circadian rhythm. These cycles are triggered by chemicals in the brain, and they can be disrupted by various things in our modern environments, including phone screens and other electronic lights. If you’re having sleeping problems, check out this article on how to sleep better at night.

Snoring isn’t a sleep disorder as such, but it can stop people you live with from getting a good night’s sleep. Learn more about snoring here.

Next Steps

By Holly Turner

Updated on 11-Oct-2022