Understanding Sleep Disorders

According to the American Sleep Association, 50 to 70 million adults in the United States suffer from a sleep disorder. Of these disorders, two stand out among the rest: insomnia and sleep apnea. “Insomnia is the most common specific sleep disorder, with short-term issues reported by about 30% of adults and chronic insomnia by 10%,” reports the association.

While insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, it is not to overshadow sleep apnea. Considering that “48% of adults report snoring as an issue,” this is another troubling disorder. Sleep apnea, which is defined as being “a sleep breathing disorder that is characterized by repetitive pauses in breathing during sleep,” today affects 25 million adults. While statistics like these surely startle many, it is even more chilling to learn how those suffering from these disorders can gravely affect those around them. According to the same association, “Drowsy driving is responsible for 1,550 fatalities and 40,000 nonfatal injuries annually in the United States.”

What can we do to prevent ourselves and our loved ones from suffering from these various disorders? The first vital step is to pinpoint the causes of these disorders, as well as learn what the symptoms of a sleep disorder are.


According to National Sleep Foundation, insomnia occurs when one has a “difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, even when a person has the chance to do so.” This sleep disorder can be classified into two groups: acute insomnia as well as chronic insomnia.

  • Acute insomnia is often brief and happens because of life circumstances (for example, when you can’t fall asleep the night before a presentation at work, or after receiving stressful or bad news). Symptoms include not being able to sleep for a number of nights. Those suffering from this type of insomnia may have experienced this type of passing sleep disruption, and it tends to resolve without any treatment.
  • Chronic insomnia is characterized as being “disrupted sleep that occurs at least three nights per week and lasts at least three months.” Chronic insomnia disorders can have many causes. “Changes in the environment, unhealthy sleep habits, shift work, other clinical disorders, and certain medications could lead to a long-term pattern of insufficient sleep,” according to the National Sleep Foundation. This type of sleep disorder does not go away untreated. Since insomnia can be comorbid, meaning it can be linked to another medical or psychiatric issue, there are times when it is difficult to understand why someone suffers from this type of insomnia. Therefore, professional treatment is recommended.

Sleep Apnea

There are two different types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. While both do affect a number of adults every year, obstructive is far more common.

  • Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when one’s breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep. The “apnea” in sleep apnea refers to a breathing pause that lasts for at least ten seconds. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open, despite efforts to breathe.
  • Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to properly control breathing during sleep. Conditions that may be associated with central sleep apnea include the following:
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Hypothyroid disease
  • Kidney failure
  • Neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease)
  • Damage to the brainstem caused by encephalitis, stroke, injury, or other factors

For people with sleep apnea, the combination of disturbed sleep and oxygen starvation may lead to hypertension or heart disease, as well as cause extreme mood and memory problems. Sleep apnea also highly increases the risk of drowsy driving.

While seeking professional help is the ultimately the best step, one can first work towards eliminating their sleep disorder through understanding the causes and symptoms of these disorders.