Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital
New Brunswick • Somerset

Sleep Disorders Defined

Having trouble getting a good night's sleep? Still feel tired when you wake up even after sleeping for the recommended eight hours? You are not alone. About 70 million people in the United States suffer from a sleep problem, which may be as simple as having poor sleep habits or as serious as sleep apnea, narcolepsy or restless leg syndrome.

Common sleep disorders include:


Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea is a medical disorder in which someone stops breathing after falling asleep. An apnea (or apneic event) is defined as a cessation of airflow lasting at least 10 seconds. There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive, central and mixed.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea
The most common form of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea is usually associated with snoring. The muscles of the upper airway (the back of the throat) relax, and the airway collapses, preventing air from being drawn in. This cessation of breathing causes the blood oxygen level to fall, which in turn causes the brain to send a signal that wakes the sleeper. Once the sleeper awakens enough for the airway to regain muscle tone, he or she is able to inhale. This can happen repeatedly throughout the sleep period. Although the apnea sufferer does not remember these awakenings in the morning, he or she has not had enough deep, uninterrupted sleep.

Central Sleep Apnea
In central sleep apnea, the brain fails to send the proper signals to the diaphragm and chest muscles. The airway stays open, but the body "forgets" to breathe. Central sleep apnea may be associated with certain neurological conditions or cardiopulmonary disorders. As in obstructive sleep apnea, when the blood oxygen level drops, the brain sends a signal waking the sleeper, which allows him or her to breathe again.

Mixed Sleep Apnea
A combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea symptoms.

Insomnia
The inability to fall asleep or stay asleep.

Narcolepsy
Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that is characterized by involuntary sleep attacks at inappropriate times, such as falling asleep at your desk or during a business meeting. This sleep disorder is not as prevalent as sleep apnea, affecting between 125,000 and 200,000 nationwide.

Restless Leg Syndrome
Restless Leg Syndrome often is referred to as "the most common problem you have never heard of." A neurological movement disorder that has been diagnosed in 12 million Americans, it is characterized by an uncomfortable sensation in the legs that occurs most frequently late in the day or at night, especially when lying down. The condition is more common among women than men.

Although millions suffer from sleep disorders, many don't know it - or they don't take them seriously enough to seek treatment. According to a recent poll by the National Sleep Foundation, 21 percent of Americans believe that they have a sleep problem, but 70 percent of those say their doctor had never asked them about their sleep habits and 18 percent thought that their problem would simply "go away" without treatment.

If untreated, sleep disorders can increase a person's risk for heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, diabetes and frequent nighttime urination. Not getting enough sleep - whether because of a sleep disorder or simply because of a hectic lifestyle - can also lead to another health hazard: "drowsy driving." Sixty percent of licensed drivers admitted driving while drowsy during the past year, the National Sleep Foundation reports. That statistic translates to roughly 115 million people who got behind the wheel while feeling sleepy, putting themselves and other motorists at risk.

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