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Understanding Sleep Problems -- The Basics


What Are Sleep Disorders? continued...

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea occurs when the upper airway becomes completely or partially blocked, interrupting regular breathing for short periods of time -- which then wakes you up. It can cause severe daytime sleepiness. If left untreated, severe sleep apnea may be associated with high blood pressure and the risk of stroke and heart attack.

Pregnancy and Sleep

Women often experience sleepless nights and daytime fatigue in the first and third trimesters of their pregnancy. During the first trimester, frequent trips to the bathroom and morning sickness may disrupt sleep. Later in pregnancy, vivid dreams and physical discomfort may prevent deep sleep. After delivery, the new baby's care or the mother's postpartum depression may interrupt sleep.


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 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.

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