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Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders are a group of conditions which disrupt the ability to sleep properly, affecting daily life and general health.

  1. Some conditions can lead to a complete inability to sleep
  2. May have adverse mental and physical effects
  3. Can be treated with lifestyle adjustments and therapy

If you are consistently not getting enough sleep, you may have an undiagnosed sleep disorder. One of our GMC-registered doctors can speak to you via our online video doctor service about how you can manage the condition.

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Sleep disorders can be a difficult psychological problem to address, as worrying about not sleeping properly can make the conditions worse.

Sleep disorders may manifest in a variety of ways. The difficulty can be physical or mental, and symptoms range from simply a lack of sleep to significant health issues.

What types of sleep disorders are there?

Insomnia

Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, and refers to the basic inability to sleep properly at night due to a variety of factors. A health condition, medication and caffeine intake can all have an impact on insomnia. Insomnia may entail being awake for long periods during the night, waking up much earlier than normal and feeling sluggish as a result.

Sleep apnoea

Sleep apnoea is a condition which causes your breathing to stop while you are asleep. This can happen due to an obstruction in the airway, or because breathing becomes too shallow. The process makes you wake up, and even though you may not always remember the episodes, the effects of a poor night’s sleep will be felt.

Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder which leads to excessive daytime sleepiness which is uncontrollable. It usually occurs in the form of sleep attacks, where you suddenly fall asleep in the middle of a daily activity. 

Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorder

This is a disruption in your circadian rhythms which makes you sleep badly. Circadian rhythm is also known as the internal body clock, which regulates our daily sleep cycle and being awake. Common causes of circadian rhythm disruption include jet lag, shift work, and delayed sleep phase (a common problem in adolescence and young adulthood).

What symptoms do different sleep disorders cause?

Symptoms vary across different sleep disorders, but there are some which are applicable to all of the conditions.

It is very likely that you will feel irritable and sleepy during the day if you are consistently sleeping badly due to a disorder. Reactions are likely to be slower and emotions become more difficult to control. Sleeping disorders can also make you rely on caffeine more to keep you going during the day.

Sleep apnoea causes periods of loud snoring during the night because your airways are obstructed. Episodes of not breathing properly often result in gasping for breath and spluttering. The process of waking up when your brain is starved of oxygen can also cause night sweats.

Narcolepsy causes you to feel very drowsy during the day, with the addition of episodes of sleep attacks where you fall asleep uncontrollably. It’s often associated with sleep paralysis, in which you can’t move whilst waking or falling asleep.

How are sleep disorders diagnosed?

In order to diagnose a sleep disorder, you will need to speak to a doctor about your condition first, before possibly having a physical exam and some sleep tests.

A doctor will ask you about the nature of your sleep disorder. They will look to identify whether the issue relates to struggling to fall asleep, waking up too early, waking up too many times during the night or a combination of these factors.

They will also ask about the environment in which you sleep, and if you have any other medical conditions which could be impacting on your sleep. If you are anxious or worried about something, this may also stop you from falling asleep.

There are a number of steps which a doctor can take, depending on what sleeping disorder they suspect you may have. It is likely that they will ask you to keep a sleep log, so that you can record what time you go to bed and how long you sleep for. Over a two week period, this will give a doctor a better idea on the nature of your sleep disorder. They may also ask you to fill out a sleep inventory, which is a questionnaire that helps you to talk about your sleep patterns and medical history.

The last step involves an overnight sleep study called a polysomnography. This is a test in a laboratory where you are connected to an ECG. Your oxygen levels, body movements, heart rate and breathing patterns are all monitored. Alternatively, you can do the same study from home if you are uncomfortable with this environment.

What treatments are there for sleep disorders?

Most treatments for sleep disorders are non-pharmacological, and focus on making lifestyle adjustments. A doctor is likely to recommend some measures you can take to try and sleep better.

A clinician may suggest:

  • Reducing your caffeine intake
  • Not eating heavily before bedtime
  • Establishing a regular time at which you go to bed and wake up
  • Not napping during the day
  • Not doing exercise late at night, but during the day instead
  • Ensuring that your room is a comfortable environment to sleep in (not too hot, dark, and noiseless)
  • Trying some relaxation techniques before sleeping such as reading a book, or listening to some music quietly

A doctor might refer you to a psychologist if these changes do not make any difference. Cognitive behavioural therapy has been shown to have a positive effect on difficulties sleeping. Therapists can discuss the triggers in your thought patterns with you, which might be leading to difficulty sleeping. 

For sleep apnoea, the most common treatment is wearing an electrical mask, which pumps air into your nose at a very light pressure. This prevents blockages from occurring. Although this does not completely cure sleep apnoea, it’s very effective in the long-term.

Specific medications can be prescribed for narcolepsy to stimulate you, in order to avoid sleep attacks. Examples of possible stimulants are modafinil, dexamphetamine and methylphenidate. They are not specifically designed to be taken for narcolepsy, but they can be effective.

Talking to a doctor about sleep disorders online

If you notice problems with your sleep regularly, you might want to speak to a doctor online about having a potential sleep disorder. Our GMC-registered doctors are available to speak to via our online video consultation service. Once you’ve booked a slot at a time that suits you, you can consult with them about how to manage your sleep better, and possible treatment options.

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