Skip to content

What to Do if You Think you Have a Sleep Disorder

From wakeful nights to sleepwalking, narcolepsy to sleep apnea, sleep disorders are not uncommon. In fact, in the UK, sleep issues are thought to affect as much as one third of the population1.

Sleep disorders can (sometimes) be a symptom of a wider medical complaint or contribute towards other health issues. Whatever their own cause and however they manifest themselves, these conditions shouldn’t be ignored. All are treatable in one way or another.

If you suspect that you are suffering from one or more sleep-related issues, it’s advisable that you seek medical advice. In the meantime, why not read our exploration of the subject and learn a little more about exactly what is a sleep disorder, their symptoms and how they’re treated.

What is a sleep disorder?

If you are experiencing trouble sleeping, its highly important to recognise the difference between a sleep disorder and a simple lack of sleep. Sleep disorders, otherwise known as sleep-wake disorders, share many of the same symptoms as a bad night’s sleep, however, the frequency and intensity of those symptoms is critical in making the distinction.

Sleep disorders will affect the quality, timing, and amount of sleep you get each night, usually over a long, sustained period. They are often linked to other issues, both physical and mental, and are usually diagnosed by a medical professional and treated as a medical condition. This means that your GP may advise both lifestyle changes or prescribe medication. Often, treating the underlying issue behind the particular sleep disorder is key to treatment and management.

Types of sleep disorders

While the most common issue that people have with sleep is simply not getting enough of it, there are a whole host of sleep complaints that it’s possible to experience. From the mildly irritating to the somewhat dangerous.

These are the five most common sleep disorders:


An inability to fall or remain asleep, insomnia is easily the most common of all the sleep disorders it’s possible to suffer from. Nearly 50% of people experience insomnia to one degree or another2.

Sleep apnea

When a person’s breathing is disturbed while they are asleep, they may have the potentially dangerous sleep disorder known as sleep apnea. People with untreated sleep apnea repeatedly cease breathing while they are asleep.

It happens as a result of upper airway obstruction. People who have this illness frequently wake up gasping for oxygen or choking. Snoring loudly is another typical symptom.


Excessive sleepiness during the day which very often culminates in uncontrollably falling asleep (known as ‘sleep attacks’) are known as narcolepsy. This type of sleep disorder can be highly dangerous at its most severe.

Restless Legs Syndrome

7–10% of people experience Restless Leg Syndrome3, a kind of sleep-related movement condition. RSL, also known as Willis-Ekbom Disease, is characterised by intense urges to move the legs while they are at rest. As well as throbbing, itching and other painful sensations in the legs.

People with RLS are more likely to have issues with sleep onset and sleep maintenance because their symptoms are often worse when they are in bed.


If you find yourself frequently moving during sleep in a way that affects your sleep quality – or behaving oddly while asleep – you could be afflicted by a parasomnia. Common examples include: sleepwalking, teeth grinding, talking or groaning, having disturbing nightmares or wetting the bed.

What causes sleep disorders?

Because there are a few different forms of sleep disorder, there’s no singular cause behind them. There are, however, some crossovers. Here are some of the more common reasons behind why someone may suffer from such issues with their sleep:

  • Allergies
  • Chronic pain
  • Environmental issues such as room temperature
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Lack of exercise
  • An overactive thyroid
  • Eating too much at night
  • Poor sleep habits
  • Alcohol
  • Nicotine
  • Caffeine
  • Stimulant drugs
  • Medication
  • Jet lag
  • Shift work
  • A wider medical issue
  • Respiratory problems
  • Nocturia (frequent urination)

How sleep disorders are diagnosed

Of course, you can research the area yourself and make a layman’s self-diagnosis. That may help to a degree. However, for a real, formal diagnosis you’ll need to speak to a doctor.

Generally, the first thing you’ll be asked to do is to keep a sleep diary. So it may pay to start this before your appointment. Make notes of anything and everything you feel is relevant including your bedtime, wake time, how disturbed your sleep was, any incidents, when you last ate, any caffeine/nicotine/alcohol consumed…

You may be referred to a sleep clinic who will want to discuss your sleep health and habits, as well as assess your overall health – perhaps with a physical examination.

For a formal diagnosis of a serious sleep disorder, you will likely be asked to stay over at the clinic for a sleep study (polysomnogram)4. They’ll be looking out for unusual activity in one or more of the following:

  • Eye movements
  • Brain wave changes
  • Heart rate
  • Electrical activity of
  • the heart
  • Breathing rate
  • Blood pressure

What to do if you think you have a sleep disorder

How you react to having one or more of the sleep disorders we’ve discussed should depend on their severity.

If you’re only noticing occasional and non-debilitating insomnia or RSL, there are lots of lifestyle changes you can enact which may very well stop or alleviate things. If, however, your symptoms are more severe, go and speak to a medical professional. They can help.

How sleep disorders are treated

As with many other health conditions, there are two main ways in which sleep disorders are treated: lifestyle changes and medication.

Less severe afflictions such as light insomnia will likely result in advice for changes in sleeping patterns and habits. The more debilitating end of the scale may see your doctor prescribe a course of sleeping pills (for insomnia), a stimulant (for narcolepsy), an anticonvulsant (for RSL) or provide a breathing device (for sleep apnea).

If you suspect you’re suffering from a sleep disorder which is becoming unmanageable or disrupting your life, speak to your GP. They can assess the situation and, if necessary, refer you to a consultant or sleep specialist.

For more information on sleep disorders, as well as advice and guidance on how to sleep better, explore the Nytol blog today.


1, Sleep and Health – UK Parliament
2, Insomnia – University of California San Francisco
3, Restless Legs Syndrome Fact Sheet – National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
4, Polysomnography – Healthline