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Understanding Sleep Problems -- The Basics

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What Are Sleep Disorders? continued...

Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is a brain disorder that causes excessive daytime sleepiness. There is sometimes a genetic component, but most patients have no family history of the problem. Though dramatic and uncontrolled "sleep attacks" have been the best-known feature of narcolepsy, in reality many patients do not have sleep attacks. Instead, they experience constant sleepiness during the day.

Restless Legs Syndrome

In people who have restless legs syndrome, discomfort in the legs and feet peaks during the evening and night. They feel an urge to move their legs and feet to get temporary relief, often with excessive, rhythmic, or cyclic leg movements during sleep. This can delay sleep onset and cause brief awakening during sleep. Restless legs syndrome is a common problem among middle-aged and older adults.

Nightmares

Nightmares are frightening dreams that arise during REM sleep. They can be caused by stress, anxiety, and some drugs. Often, there is no clear cause.

Night Terrors and Sleepwalking

Both night terrors and sleepwalking arise during NREM sleep and occur most often in children between the ages of 3 and 5 years old. A night terror can be dramatic: Your child may wake up screaming, but unable to explain the fear. Sometimes children who have night terrors remember a frightening image, but often they remember nothing. Night terrors are often more frightening for parents than for their child. Sleepwalkers can perform a range of activities -- some potentially dangerous, like leaving the house -- while they continue to sleep.

What Causes Sleep Disorders?

Insomnia

Insomnia may be temporary and stem from a simple cause, such as jet lag. Short-term insomnia may also be caused by an illness, a stressful event, or drinking too much coffee, for example. Many medications have insomnia as a side effect.

Long-term insomnia may be caused by stress, depression, or anxiety. People can also become conditioned to insomnia: They associate bedtime with difficulty, expect to have trouble sleeping (and thus do), and become irritable (which can cause more insomnia). This cycle can be maintained for several years.

Circadian rhythm disorders are an important but less common cause of insomnia. People who abuse alcohol or drugs often suffer from insomnia.

Snoring and Sleep Apnea

When you fall asleep, many muscles in your body relax. If muscles in the throat relax too much, your breathing may be blocked and you may snore. Sometimes, snoring is caused by allergies, asthma, or nasal deformities that make breathing difficult.

Apnea means "no airflow." Obstructive sleep apnea was thought to be a disorder primarily of overweight, older men. But abnormal breathing during sleep can affect people of any age, any weight, and either sex. Researchers now know that in many cases of sleep apnea, the obstruction in the airways is only partial. Most people with sleep apnea have a smaller-than-normal inner throat and other subtle bone and soft-tissue differences.

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