A sleep disorder, or somnipathy, is a medical disorder of the sleep patterns of a person or animal. Some sleep disorders are serious enough to interfere with normal physical, mental, social and emotional functioning. Polysomnography and actigraphy are tests commonly ordered for some sleep disorders.

Disruptions in sleep can be caused by a variety of issues, from teeth grinding (bruxism) to night terrors. When a person suffers from difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep with no obvious cause, it is referred to as insomnia.[1]

Sleep disorders are broadly classified into dyssomnias, parasomnias, circadian rhythm sleep disorders involving the timing of sleep, and other disorders including ones caused by medical or psychological conditions and sleeping sickness.

Some common sleep disorders include sleep apnea (stops in breathing during sleep), narcolepsy and hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness at inappropriate times), cataplexy (sudden and transient loss of muscle tone while awake), and sleeping sickness (disruption of sleep cycle due to infection). Other disorders include sleepwalking, night terrors and bed wetting. Management of sleep disturbances that are secondary to mental, medical, or substance abuse disorders should focus on the underlying conditions.

Common disorders

The most common sleep disorders include:

  • Bruxism, involuntarily grinding or clenching of the teeth while sleeping.
  • Catathrenia, nocturnal groaning during prolonged exhalation.
  • Delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD), inability to awaken and fall asleep at socially acceptable times but no problem with sleep maintenance, a disorder of circadian rhythms. Other such disorders are advanced sleep phase disorder (ASPD), non-24-hour sleep–wake disorder (non-24) in the sighted or in the blind, and irregular sleep wake rhythm, all much less common than DSPD, as well as the situational shift work sleep disorder.[2]
  • Hypopnea syndrome, abnormally shallow breathing or slow respiratory rate while sleeping.
  • Idiopathic hypersomnia, a primary, neurologic cause of long-sleeping, sharing many similarities with narcolepsy.
  • Insomnia disorder (primary insomnia), chronic difficulty in falling asleep and/or maintaining sleep when no other cause is found for these symptoms. Insomnia can also be comorbid with or secondary to other disorders.
  • Kleine–Levin syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by persistent episodic hypersomnia and cognitive or mood changes.[3]
  • Narcolepsy, including excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS), often culminating in falling asleep spontaneously but unwillingly at inappropriate times. About 70% of those who have narcolepsy also have cataplexy, a sudden weakness in the motor muscles that can result in collapse to the floor while retaining full conscious awareness.[4]
  • Night terror, Pavor nocturnus, sleep terror disorder, an abrupt awakening from sleep with behavior consistent with terror.[5]
  • Nocturia, a frequent need to get up and urinate at night. It differs from enuresis, or bed-wetting, in which the person does not arouse from sleep, but the bladder nevertheless empties.[6]
  • Parasomnias, disruptive sleep-related events involving inappropriate actions during sleep, for example sleep walking, night-terrors and catathrenia.
  • Periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD), sudden involuntary movement of arms and/or legs during sleep, for example kicking the legs. Also known as nocturnal myoclonus. See also Hypnic jerk, which is not a disorder.
  • Rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder (RBD), acting out violent or dramatic dreams while in REM sleep, sometimes injuring bed partner or self (REM sleep disorder or RSD).[7]
  • Restless legs syndrome (RLS), an irresistible urge to move legs. RLS sufferers often also have PLMD.
  • Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD), a situational circadian rhythm sleep disorder. (Jet lag was previously included as a situational circadian rhythm sleep disorder, but it doesn't appear in DSM-5 (see Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders)).
  • Sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea, obstruction of the airway during sleep, causing lack of sufficient deep sleep, often accompanied by snoring. Other forms of sleep apnea are less common.[8] When air is blocked from entering into the lungs, the individual unconsciously gasps for air and sleep is disturbed. Stops of breathing of at least ten seconds, 30 times within seven hours of sleep, classifies as apnea. Other forms of sleep apnea include central sleep apnea and sleep-related hypoventilation.[9]
  • Sleep paralysis, characterized by temporary paralysis of the body shortly before or after sleep. Sleep paralysis may be accompanied by visual, auditory or tactile hallucinations. Not a disorder unless severe. Often seen as part of narcolepsy.
  • Sleepwalking or somnambulism, engaging in activities normally associated with wakefulness (such as eating or dressing), which may include walking, without the conscious knowledge of the subject.
  • Somniphobia, one cause of sleep deprivation, a dread/ fear of falling asleep or going to bed. Signs of the illness include anxiety and panic attacks before and during attempts to sleep.



A systematic review found that traumatic childhood experiences (such as family conflict or sexual trauma) significantly increases the risk for a number of sleep disorders in adulthood, including sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and insomnia.[15] It is currently unclear whether or not moderate alcohol consumption increases the risk of obstructive sleep apnea.[16]

In addition, an evidence-based synopses suggests that the sleep disorder, idiopathic REM sleep behavior disorder (iRBD), may have a hereditary component to it. A total of 632 participants, half with iRBD and half without, completed self-report questionnaires. The results of the study suggest that people with iRBD are more likely to report having a first-degree relative with the same sleep disorder than people of the same age and sex that do not have the disorder.[17] More research needs to be conducted to gain further information about the hereditary nature of sleep disorders.

A population susceptible to the development of sleep disorders is people who have experienced a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Because many researchers have focused on this issue, a systematic review was conducted to synthesize their findings. According to their results, TBI individuals are most disproportionately at risk for developing narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea, excessive daytime sleepiness, and insomnia.[18] The study's complete findings can be found in the table below:

Source of data Sleep variable Community TBI Community TBI
Sleep category Nparticipants Nparticipants P P Z prob
Healthy controls
Sleep disturbance Overall 66 85 .32 .56 3.02 .003
Sleep problem Sleep initiation 77 77 .05 .41 5.33 <.001
Excessive daytime sleepiness 85 99 .10 .24 2.65 .008
Community samples
Sleep disturbance Overall 2187 1706 .41 .50 5.59 <.001
Sleep disorders Insomnia 1007 581 .10 .29 9.94 <.001
Hypersomnia 7954 212 .10 .28 8.38 <.001
Obstructive sleep apnoea 1741 283 .02 .25 15.51 <.001
Periodic limb movements 18,980 212 .04 .08 2.95 .003
Narcolepsy 18,980 152 .00b .04 17.11 <.001
Sleep problem Snoring 2629 65 .42 .60 3.56 <.001
Insomnia 6340 1001 .31 .50 11.8 <.001
Sleep maintenance 24,600 309 .27 .50 8.96 <.001
Sleep efficiency 1007 119 .27 .49 4.93 <.001
Sleep initiation 24,600 368 .27 .36 3.80 <.001
Nightmares 2187 133 .08 .27 7.43 <.001
Excessive daytime sleepiness 16,583 651 .09 .27 15.27 <.001
Early morning awakening 24,600 364 .18 .38 9.76 <.001
Sleep walking 4972 99 .02 .09 4.85 <.001


Treatments for sleep disorders generally can be grouped into four categories:

None of these general approaches is sufficient for all patients with sleep disorders. Rather, the choice of a specific treatment depends on the patient's diagnosis, medical and psychiatric history, and preferences, as well as the expertise of the treating clinician. Often, behavioral/psychotherapeutic and pharmacological approaches are not incompatible and can effectively be combined to maximize therapeutic benefits. Management of sleep disturbances that are secondary to mental, medical, or substance abuse disorders should focus on the underlying conditions.

Medications and somatic treatments may provide the most rapid symptomatic relief from some sleep disturbances. Certain disorders like narcolepsy, are best treated with prescription drugs such as modafinil.[13] Others, such as chronic and primary insomnia, may be more amenable to behavioral interventions, with more durable results.

Chronic sleep disorders in childhood, which affect some 70% of children with developmental or psychological disorders, are under-reported and under-treated. Sleep-phase disruption is also common among adolescents, whose school schedules are often incompatible with their natural circadian rhythm. Effective treatment begins with careful diagnosis using sleep diaries and perhaps sleep studies. Modifications in sleep hygiene may resolve the problem, but medical treatment is often warranted.[19]

Special equipment may be required for treatment of several disorders such as obstructive apnea, the circadian rhythm disorders and bruxism. In these cases, when severe, an acceptance of living with the disorder, however well managed, is often necessary.

Some sleep disorders have been found to compromise glucose metabolism.[20]

Allergy treatment

Histamine plays a role in wakefulness in the brain. An allergic reaction over produces histamine causing wakefulness and inhibiting sleep[21] Sleep problems are common in people with allergic rhinitis. A study from the N.I.H. found that sleep is dramatically impaired by allergic symptoms and that the degree of impairment is related to the severity of those symptoms [1]s[22] Treatment of allergies has also been shown to help sleep apnea.[23]


A review of the evidence in 2012 concluded that current research is not rigorous enough to make recommendations around the use of acupuncture for insomnia.[24] The pooled results of two trials on acupuncture showed a moderate likelihood that there may be some improvement to sleep quality for individuals with a diagnosis insomnia.[24]:15 This form of treatment for sleep disorders is generally studied in adults, rather than children. Further research would be needed to study the effects of acupuncture on sleep disorders in children.


Research suggests that hypnosis may be helpful in alleviating some types and manifestations of sleep disorders in some patients.[25] "Acute and chronic insomnia often respond to relaxation and hypnotherapy approaches, along with sleep hygiene instructions."[26] Hypnotherapy has also helped with nightmares and sleep terrors. There are several reports of successful use of hypnotherapy for parasomnias[27][28] specifically for head and body rocking, bedwetting and sleepwalking.[29]

Hypnotherapy has been studied in the treatment of sleep disorders in both adults[29] and children.[30]

Music therapy

Although more research should be done to increase the reliability of this method of treatment, research suggests that music therapy can improve sleep quality in acute and chronic sleep disorders. In one particular study, participants (18 years or older) who had experienced acute or chronic sleep disorders were put in a randomly controlled trial and their sleep efficiency (overall time asleep) was observed. In order to assess sleep quality, researchers used subjective measures (i.e. questionnaires) and objective measures (i.e. polysomnography). The results of the study suggest that music therapy did improve sleep quality in subjects with acute or chronic sleep disorders, however only when tested subjectively. Although these results are not fully conclusive and more research should be conducted, it still provides evidence that music therapy can be an effective treatment for sleep disorders.[31]

In another study, specifically looking to help people with insomnia, similar results were seen. The participants that listened to music experienced better sleep quality than those who did not listen to music.[32]


In addressing sleep disorders and possible solutions, there is often a lot of buzz surrounding melatonin. Research suggests that melatonin is useful in helping people to fall asleep faster (decreased sleep latency), to stay asleep longer, and to experience improved sleep quality. In order to test this, a study was conducted that compared subjects that had taken Melatonin to subjects that had taken a placebo pill in subjects with primary sleep disorders. Researchers assessed sleep onset latency, total minutes slept, and overall sleep quality in the Melatonin and placebo groups to note the differences. In the end, researchers found that melatonin decreased sleep onset latency, increased total sleep time, and improved quality of sleep significantly more than the placebo group.[33][34]

Sleep medicine

Due to rapidly increasing knowledge about sleep in the 20th century, including the discovery of REM sleep in the 1950s and circadian rhythm disorders in the 70s and 80s, the medical importance of sleep was recognized. The medical community began paying more attention than previously to primary sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, as well as the role and quality of sleep in other conditions. By the 1970s in the USA, clinics and laboratories devoted to the study of sleep and sleep disorders had been founded, and a need for standards arose.

Specialists in Sleep Medicine were originally certified by the American Board of Sleep Medicine, which still recognizes specialists. Those passing the Sleep Medicine Specialty Exam received the designation "diplomate of the ABSM." Sleep Medicine is now a recognized subspecialty within internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics, otolaryngology, psychiatry and neurology in the United States. Certification in Sleep Medicine shows that the specialist:

"has demonstrated expertise in the diagnosis and management of clinical conditions that occur during sleep, that disturb sleep, or that are affected by disturbances in the wake-sleep cycle. This specialist is skilled in the analysis and interpretation of comprehensive polysomnography, and well-versed in emerging research and management of a sleep laboratory."[35]

Competence in sleep medicine requires an understanding of a myriad of very diverse disorders, many of which present with similar symptoms such as excessive daytime sleepiness, which, in the absence of volitional sleep deprivation, "is almost inevitably caused by an identifiable and treatable sleep disorder", such as sleep apnea, narcolepsy, idiopathic hypersomnia, Kleine–Levin syndrome, menstrual-related hypersomnia, idiopathic recurrent stupor, or circadian rhythm disturbances.[36] Another common complaint is insomnia, a set of symptoms which can have a great many different causes, physical and mental. Management in the varying situations differs greatly and cannot be undertaken without a correct diagnosis.[37]

Sleep dentistry (bruxism, snoring and sleep apnea), while not recognized as one of the nine dental specialties, qualifies for board-certification by the American Board of Dental Sleep Medicine (ABDSM). The resulting Diplomate status is recognized by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), and these dentists are organized in the Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine (USA).[38] The qualified dentists collaborate with sleep physicians at accredited sleep centers and can provide oral appliance therapy and upper airway surgery to treat or manage sleep-related breathing disorders.[39]

In the UK, knowledge of sleep medicine and possibilities for diagnosis and treatment seem to lag. Guardian.co.uk quotes the director of the Imperial College Healthcare Sleep Centre: "One problem is that there has been relatively little training in sleep medicine in this country – certainly there is no structured training for sleep physicians."[40] The Imperial College Healthcare site[41] shows attention to obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (OSA) and very few other sleep disorders. Some NHS trusts have specialist clinics for respiratory and/or neurological sleep medicine.


Children and Young Adults

According to one meta-analysis, the two most prevalent sleep disorders among children are confusional arousals and sleep walking.[42] An estimated 17.3% of kids between 3 and 13 years old experience confusional arousals.[42] About 17% of children sleep walk, with the disorder being more common among boys than girls.[42] The peak ages of sleep walking are from 8 to 12 years old.[42] A different systematic review offers a high range of prevalence rates of sleep bruxism for children. Between 15.29 and 38.6% of preschoolers grind their teeth at least one night a week. All but one of the included studies reports decreasing bruxist prevalence as age increased as well as a higher prevalence among boys than girls.[43]

Another systematic review noted 7-16% of young adults suffer from delayed sleep phase disorder. This disorder reaches peak prevalence when people are in their 20's.[42] Between 20 and 26% of adolescents report a sleep onset latency of >30 minutes. Also, 7-36% have difficulty initiating sleep.[44] Asian teens tend to have a higher prevalence of all of these adverse sleep outcomes than their North American and European counterparts.[44]


Combining results from 17 studies on insomnia in China, a pooled prevalence of 15.0% is reported for the country.[45] This is considerably lower than a series of Western countries (50.5% in Poland, 37.2% in France and Italy, 27.1% in USA).[45] However, the result is consistent among other East Asian countries. Men and women residing in China experience insomnia at similar rates.[45] A separate meta-analysis focusing on this sleeping disorder in the elderly mentions that those with more than one physical or psychiatric malady experience it at a 60% higher rate than those with one condition or less. It also notes a higher prevalence of insomnia in women over the age of 50 than their male counterparts.[46]

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) affects around 4% of men and 2% of women in the United States.[47] In general, this disorder is more prevalent among men. However, this difference tends to diminish with age. Women experience the highest risk for OSA during pregnancy.[48] Also, they tend to report experiencing depression and insomnia in conjunction with obstructive sleep apnea.[49] In a meta-analysis of the various Asian countries, India and China present the highest prevalence of the disorder. Specifically, about 13.7% of the Indian population and 7% of Hong-Kong's population is estimated to have OSA. The two groups experience daytime OSA symptoms such as difficulties concentrating, mood swings, or high blood pressure,[50] at similar rates (prevalence of 3.5% and 3.57%, respectively).[47]

Sleep Paralysis

A systematic review states 7.6% of the general population experiences sleep paralysis at least once in their lifetime. Its prevalence among men is 15.9% while 18.9% of women experience it. When considering specific populations, 28.3% of students and 31.9% of psychiatric patients have experienced this phenomenon at least once in their lifetime. Of those psychiatric patients, 34.6% have panic disorder. Sleep paralysis in students is slightly more prevalent for those of Asian descent (39.9%) than other ethnicities (Hispanic: 34.5%, African descent: 31.4%, Caucasian 30.8%).[51]

Restless Leg Syndrome

According to one meta-analysis, the mean prevalence rate for North America and Western Europe is estimated to be 14.5±8.0%. Specifically in the United States, the prevalence of restless leg syndrome is estimated to be between 5 and 15.7% when using strict diagnostic criteria. RLS is over 35% more prevalent in American women than their male counterparts.[52]

See also


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External links

V · T · D
External resources

  • Sleep Problems - information leaflet from mental health charity The Royal College of Psychiatrists
  • [2] Sleep Disorders Health Center