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Sleep Disorders

sleep disorder, or somnipathy, is a medical disorder of the sleep patterns, some of which are serious enough to interfere with normal physical, mental and emotional functioning.

Disruptions in sleep can be caused by a variety of issues, from teeth grinding (bruxism) to night terrors. When a person suffers from difficulty in sleeping with no obvious cause, it is referred to as insomnia. In addition, sleep disorders may also cause sufferers to sleep excessively, a condition known as hypersomnia. Management of sleep disturbances that are secondary to mental, medical, or substance abuse disorders should focus on the underlying conditions.

There are more than 80 different sleep problems listed in the medical textbooks, ranging from the inability to get to sleep (insomnia) to the inability to stay awake (narcolepsy). Many sleep problems are temporary but sleep problems can also be a symptom of other conditions, such as a problem with the thyroid gland or depression.


One third of the UK population suffers from insomnia, a prolonged and usually abnormal inability to obtain adequate, uninterrupted sleep. Symptoms may include having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or waking up too early in the morning, feeling unrefreshed. The consequences are unpleasant, leaving sufferers feeling exhausted, irritable and unable to concentrate on simple tasks.

What causes insomnia?

There's no one specific trigger for insomnia certain individuals who are more likely to experience it seem to be females, people aged over sixty and those with a history of depression. Stress is a major contributor. Traumatic events such as acute illness, injury or surgery, the loss of a loved one, exams, or trouble at work can all disrupt sleep patterns. In such cases, normal sleep almost always returns when the individual recovers from the event or becomes acclimated to the new situation.

Jet lag can also cause insomnia. Travelling east across time zones is more difficult to adjust to than travelling west, to earlier times. Usually one day of adjustment is all that is required to overcome the insomnia.

Environmental and lifestyle factors may also come into play such as too much light in the bedroom, too much caffeine or too many stimulants in the body and radiation from electrical devices such as a computer or mobile phone.

Can insomnia be treated?

Treatment is related to the cause, if the cause can readily be determined. Patients are evaluated with the help of a medical and sleep history (sleep diary). Chronic suffers may be treated through cognitive behavioural therapy involving relaxation and reconditioning.

One of the best ways to prevent insomnia is to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Avoid going to bed feeling stressed and worried. If you're worried about falling asleep, it will be more difficult to fall asleep. Try not to eat too close to bedtime and avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks. 

Sleep apnoea

Sleep apnoea owes its meaning to the Greek word apnea, meaning 'want of breath' and this condition affects the sleep of around 180,000 people in the UK.

What causes sleep apnoea?

Apnoea is caused by the same muscles that cause snoring. It occurs when the muscles of the soft palate at the base of the tongue and the uvula (the small fleshy piece of tissue hanging back of the throat) relax, partially blocking the opening of the airway. However, sleep apnoea is more dangerous than snoring because it alters normal breathing patterns.

While asleep, suffers may stop breathing for between 10 to 25 seconds at a time, depleting the bloodstream and brain of vital oxygen supplies. The brain then suddenly sends an emergency signal, telling the person to wake up and take in a big gulp of air. In one single night, suffers may experience up to 350 'apnoeic events' and usually find themselves waking up sweaty, with a dry mouth and headache. The frequent interruptions of deep sleep lead to excessive daytime fatigue and sleepiness.

Can sleep apnoea be treated?

Sleep apnoea is a potentially life-threatening condition associated with strokes, heart attacks and high blood pressure and therefore requires medical attention.

A sleep test called 'polysomnography' is usually carried out to diagnose sleep apnoea.

Treatment varies according to severity of symptoms. Mild cases can be effectively treated through behavioural changes - losing weight, cutting down on alcohol or sleeping on your side, for example.

More severe cases may be treated with a CPAP machine, so named because they maintain constant positive air pressure to the wind pipe to help users breathe easy at night. The benefits are better sleep and reduced risk of heart attacks during the night.


Narcolepsy is a brain disorder that upsets how the body regulates your sleep patterns. One of the main symptoms is excessive sleepiness – sufferers can fall asleep at work, talking or driving a car. These 'sleep attacks' can last from 30 seconds to more than 30 minutes, regardless of how much sleep you are getting at night.

Can Narcolepsy be treated?

There is no specific cure for narcolepsy, but symptoms can be managed to minimise the impact the condition has on daily life.

One of the best ways to manage excessive daytime sleepiness is to take frequent, brief naps evenly spaced through the day.

Although this may not always be possible in a work or school situation, your GP should be able to devise a sleep schedule that will help you get into a routine of taking naps.

Also make sure you stick to a strict bedtime routine. Whenever possible, go to bed at the same time each night and try to get at least eight hours sleep every night. This will help your body adjust to a regular routine and ensure your night time sleep is less disturbed.

Making lifestyle changes can also help manage narcolepsy symptoms. These include avoiding stressful situations, eating a healthy, balanced diet and taking regular exercise. 

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