What is a sleep disorder?

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By Dr Simon Kyle

At some point in their lives, it's likely that everyone will have trouble sleeping. Whether it's getting to sleep in the first place, or staying asleep throughout the night, we've all spent nights becoming increasingly frustrated, staring at the ceiling and willing ourselves to “just go to sleep”. Indeed sleeping may seem like the easiest, most natural thing in the world, until you can't. However, it's when these odd nights of bad quality or little sleep begin to trouble you on a daily basis, and have consequences for your daytime functioning, that you may need to seek help for a sleep disorder.

Disordered sleep comes in many forms, the main sleep disorders include:
Insomnia
Narcolepsy
Sleep apnoeas
Circadian rhythm disorders such as delayed sleep phase disorder
Sleep-related movement disorders such as restless legs syndrome
Parasomnias such as night terrors

There are, of course, those who don't spend long hours lying awake in the middle of the night, but simply fail to wake up feeling rested and refreshed by their sleep. What all sleep disorders tend to have in common however is a negative impact on daytime function. In general, sleep disorders come with a whole host of potential daytime problems which can ultimately impair quality of life, making their assessment, diagnosis and treatment imperative.

How common are sleep disorders?
It's estimated that 25-30% of the population suffers from a sleep disorder (National Institutes of Health, USA). In fact, sleep disturbance is the most common symptom of mental ill-health in the UK, being around twice as common as anxiety and depressive symptoms. Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, and its prevalence increases with advancing age.

Treating sleep disorders
Despite poor sleep having become one of the most common complaints at GPs' surgeries, the average time devoted to training in sleep and sleep disorders in UK medical schools is incredibly brief. Indeed one study published in 1998 revealed it was roughly 5 minutes! (Stores & Crawford, 1998). This means that understanding, recognition, and treatment of sleep disorders in primary care may lag behind other common illnesses.

Despite the, often poor, provision of sleep disorder treatments within health care-systems, important research has and is currently being conducted to develop and assess treatments that improve sleep quality. However, advancements are being made in the development of non-drug treatments for many sleep disorders. Support for the effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to improve even long-term poor sleep is growing.

Please consult your doctor if you suspect that you might be suffering from a sleep disorder.

Reference:
Stores, G., Crawford, C. (1998). Medical student education in sleep and its disorders. Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of London, 32(2), 149-153.

Filed under: Sleep disorders