How to Recognize Signs of a Sleep Disorder

Three Methods:Identifying Common Sleep DisordersDiagnosing Sleep Disorders in Children and InfantsRecognizing Other Disorders and Complications

Although they are incredibly common, sleep disorders often go misdiagnosed or untreated. This is a serious issue that can lead to further health issues, developmental issues, and decreased quality of life. Children whose disorders are not treated are three to five times more likely to suffer from a sleep disorder when they are grown.[1] If you suspect you or your child has a sleep disorder, take a sleep test and educate yourself about the broad spectrum of sleep disorder symptoms.

Method 1
Identifying Common Sleep Disorders

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    Take a sleep test. Some of the most common sleep disorders suffered by adults are insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Many of these symptoms may appear to have nothing to do with sleep, such as high blood pressure or irritability; however, if you have three or more symptoms within one symptom group, you may have a sleep disorder.[2]
    • You can start by getting an unofficial self-diagnosis. Take a sleep test, designed to identify common sleep disorders, at a hospital or on a sleep clinic website, such as the following:
    • Visit a doctor and share your suspicions. Your doctor may follow up with a more intensive examination of your sleep.
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    Check yourself for sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder which causes you to stop breathing while you sleep. It can have serious consequences for your health and wellbeing, and is most common in older men and in smokers; however, women, children, and people with no family history of sleep apnea can also have it.[3] Some common symptoms of sleep apnea are:[4]
    • Snoring.
    • Irregular breathing at night. It may sound like you are holding your breath.
    • High blood pressure.
    • Irritability.
    • Low energy.
    • Waking up with a headache.
    • Waking up with a dry mouth.
    • Waking up struggling to breathe.
    • Being overweight.
    • Feeling sleepy and out of it during the day.
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    Consider the possibility of insomnia. Insomnia is a difficulty falling or staying asleep, despite the practice of good sleep hygiene. Most people experience temporary insomnia, especially during times of illness or stress, at some point, but insomnia that does not go away is called chronic insomnia and can have a detrimental effect on your energy, health, and ability to work.[5] The following are common symptoms of insomnia:[6]
    • Difficulty falling asleep.
    • Inability to calm your thoughts at bedtime.
    • Inability to stop worrying at bedtime.
    • Difficulty sleeping several times a week.
    • Waking in the night and having difficulty getting back to sleep.
    • Waking earlier than you wish.
    • Lying in bed awake for an hour or more at bedtime.
    • Feelings of sadness or depression due to difficulty sleeping.
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    Learn to identify the symptoms of narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a chronic disorder that causes overwhelming sleepiness during the day, regardless of the quality of your nighttime sleep. Narcolepsy is sometimes accompanied by cataplexy, a condition where the muscles lose control and tone.[7] If you have three or more common symptoms of narcolepsy, you should get tested:
    • Difficulty concentrating at work or at school.
    • Muscle limpness when strong emotion or surprise occurs.
    • Falling asleep while driving.
    • Falling asleep in social settings.
    • Feeling dazed.
    • Vivid dreams or hallucinations.
    • Vivid dreams during naps or immediately upon falling asleep or waking.
    • Uncontrollable sleep during the day, even when you try to stay awake.
    • Sleep paralysis.
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    Learn the signs of GERD. Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a digestive condition, but sleep experts consider it within the realm of sleep disorders because it can interfere with sleep.[8] The common symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux are:[9]
    • Waking up at night with a sour or acidic taste in your mouth.
    • Waking up coughing or wheezing.
    • Waking up choking.
    • Recurring sore throats.
    • Nighttime heartburn.
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    Check the possibility of a movement disorder. If you have any of the following symptoms, you may have periodic limb movement disorder or restless leg syndrome:[10]
    • Body parts jerking or kicking during sleep.
    • A sense of crawling or aching in the legs when trying to go to sleep.
    • Pain or cramps in your legs at night.
    • Feeling like you can't keep your legs comfortably still at night.
    • Feeling sleepy during the day.

Method 2
Diagnosing Sleep Disorders in Children and Infants

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    Know when issues sleeping are unusual. Many children occasionally have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. However, a child who routinely lies awake 20 or more minutes each night, or who wakes up many times in the night, may have a sleep disorder[11]
    • Infants who have passed the age of night feeding (6+ months) and still cannot sleep 11 hours at night may be showing early signs of a sleep disorder.
    • Toddlers 1-2 years of age need 11-14 hours of sleep each 24 hours. This is an age known for nighttime awakenings, sleep resistance, and nightmares. If your child is sleepy or misbehaves during the day, they may have a sleep disorder.
    • Children aged 3-5 should sleep 11-13 hours in a 24 hour period, with naps completely tapered off by age 5. Difficulty falling and staying asleep is common at this age, and this is a peak moment for night terrors, sleepwalking, and nightmares.
    • Children aged 6-13 need 9-11 hours of sleep. Screen time and school stress can cause sleep disorders, leading to moodiness, attention disorders, school issues, and misbehavior. If your child shows signs of mood disorders or ADHD like symptoms, be sure to check for a sleep disorder.
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    Notice hyperactivity, inattention, and misbehavior. Sleep disorders that manifest in sleepiness for adults often manifest as hyperactivity and inattentiveness in children. While ADHD can cause disordered sleep, a sleep disorder may be misdiagnosed as ADHD.[12]
    • If your child is disciplined in school for "not paying attention," gets bad grades on class participation, and reports trouble concentrating, they may be suffering from a sleep disorder.
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    Consider your child's moods and mental health. Sleep disorders such as restless leg syndrome are strongly associated with depression and anxiety disorders.[13] If your child is moody, and shows other symptoms of sleep deprivation, such as inattention, daytime sleepiness, or hyperactivity, consider that the root cause may be disordered sleep.
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    Take nightmares and night terrors seriously. All children have occasional nightmares and night terrors. However, if they occur regularly or disrupt your and your child's sleep, they may be considered a sleep disorder. They may also be a sign of injury, illness, or another serious sleep disorder such as sleepwalking or pediatric obstructive sleep apnea.
    • Take your child to the doctor if your child has frequent nightmares or night terrors that persist over time, if your child is afraid of sleeping, or if your child shows moodiness, exhaustion, and other signs of sleep deprivation.
    • Night terrors are distinct from nightmares in that children who suffer them tend not to remember them at all during the day.
    • Night terrors may lead to dangerous behavior or injury in children, who may leave bed and run around the house.[14]
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    Listen for snoring, and check your child's tonsils. Loud snoring in small children is a common sign of a serious condition called pediatric obstructive sleep apnea, a serious breathing disorder that can affect every facet of your child's wellbeing. Enlarged tonsils and adenoids are the most common sign of this condition.[15]
    • Shine a flashlight down your child's throat and ask them to say "ah."
    • Occasional snoring is not necessarily a sign of a sleep disorder. Loud snoring that takes place several nights a week, however, should not be ignored.[16]
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    Keep track of bedwetting. Bedwetting is not considered unusual in the first years of a child's life. If bedwetting persists beyond age 6 or 7, consult a doctor. If your child wets the bed after sleeping "dry" for months or years, there may be something wrong. Stress can cause a child to regress, as can constipation or urinary tract obstruction.[17]
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    Calculate your child's BMI. Disorders such as narcolepsy and pediatric obstructive sleep apnea may manifest as childhood obesity. Parents aren't always able to recognize the obesity of their own children, so be sure to weigh and measure your child regularly and ask your doctor about your child's Body Mass Index (BMI).[18]
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    Look into headaches. Almost ¾ of children who report headaches are suffering from a sleep disorder.[19] If your child suffers headaches, discuss possible vision and sleep issues with the pediatrician.

Method 3
Recognizing Other Disorders and Complications

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    Consider the symptoms of abnormal sleep behavior. You may have none of the common sleep disorders doctors test for, but still exhibit obviously strange behaviors in your sleep. If you thrash, have nightmares, talk to yourself in your sleep, or physically act out your dreams, you may have an abnormal sleep behavior disorder. Like narcolepsy, these indicate a poor boundary between the stages of sleeping and waking, and happen to adults and children alike.
    • Sleep terrors resemble nightmares, but are distinguished by arousal, physical movement (thrashing, screaming), large pupils, sweating, and increase blood pressure. They tend to take place early in the sleep cycle. Unlike nightmares, they take place during non-REM sleep. Children rarely remember the dream, while adults may recall fragments.[20]
    • REM Behavior Disorder causes you to act out your dream. If you sleep walk, sleep talk, jerk your arms and legs, or attempt to fight your sleep partner while dreaming, you may have RBD.
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    Learn about circadian rhythm sleep disorders. If you cannot sleep during socially conventional hours, either for work-related, vision-related, or unknown reasons, you may have a circadian rhythm sleep disorder. Talk to your doctor if you think you may fall under one of the following categories.[21]
    • Delayed phase sleep disorder is common in teenagers in young adults. It is diagnosed when you are unable to fall asleep before 1am or so in the morning, and wake in the late morning or the afternoon.
    • Non-24 hour sleep wake disorder, or irregular sleep-wake rhythm, occurs when you can only sleep in naps throughout the day.
    • Shift work disorder occurs in people whose work hours are scheduled during ordinary sleep periods, such as nurses. It can also occur in people with sleep apnea or other disorders.
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    Practice good sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene refers to your bedtime habits and rituals which can set you up for a good night's sleep. This includes making sure your bedroom is a good environment for sleep, avoiding stimulation before bed, getting on a regular sleep schedule, and getting enough sleep every night.[22]
    • Go to sleep at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning (even on weekends). If you need more sleep, try going to bed earlier.
    • Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep a night, with as few interruptions as possible.[23] Teenagers need nine to 11 hours.[24]
    • Eat two to three hours before bedtime, and don't consume caffeine in the six or more hours before you fall asleep (remember that chocolate contains caffeine). Avoid alcohol and smoking as well.
    • Avoid napping during the day.
    • Avoid vigorous exercise too close to bed — try to do it in the morning or early afternoon. A relaxing exercise, like yoga or gentle stretching, can be done before you go to bed.[25]
    • Do not go to bed emotionally upset. Try to resolve all conflicts before bedtime.[26] Keep a journal on your nightstand to write down any troubling thoughts so you can tackle them in the morning.
    • Use your bed only for sleep or sexual activity. Do not work or do homework in bed, watch TV, or even read in bed if you can avoid it.[27] This way you train your body to know that when you hit the pillow, it's time for sleep.
    • Make sure your room is dark, with no ambient light, and a cool temperature.
    • Do not look at screens before bed — this includes your smartphone, laptop, TV, or tablet. The blue light emitted from these devices make it difficult to fall asleep. One to two hours before bed, reduce your exposure to light and your devices.[28]
    • If you practice good sleep hygiene and are still experiencing symptoms of sleep deprivation, visit a sleep clinic or your family doctor.
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    Look into comorbid conditions. Many illnesses, allergies, medications, cognitive differences, and experiences can cause sleep disorders. Sometimes the cause and effect of illness/sleep disorder is unclear. If you have ADHD, Alzheimer's, dementia, or depression, you may experience sleep disorders.
    • Asthma, COPD, and difficulty breathing can also contribute to your risk, as can epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, pain from injury, and fibromyalgia.
    • Experiences of trauma can lead to disordered sleep. If you are suffering from PTSD, talk to your doctor about best sleep practices.

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Categories: Sleep Disorders