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Insomnia vs. Sleep Apnea: How Do I Know Which One I Have?

By Michael Howard
Both insomnia and sleep apnea can disrupt your sleep, and the two conditions can present with similar daytime symptoms. Learn how these two common sleep disorders differ.

Sleep apnea is not the only condition that can affect your sleep. In fact, Johns Hopkins Medicine notes that there are more than 70 different sleep disorders that can disrupt your sleepincluding insomnia. But how do sleep apnea and insomnia differ from one another? Read on to learn more about the differences between these two common sleep disorders.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition that interferes with your breathing while you’re asleep. If you have sleep apnea, you may momentarily stop breathing dozens of times per night without realizing it.

“The most common cause of sleep apnea is OSA (obstructive sleep apnea),” Chad Denman, DMD, sleep specialist at Sleep Cycle Center, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “This is caused by the soft tissues in the back of the throat collapsing and obstructing the airway. When this happens, the person is woken up because the body is experiencing a drop in oxygen.”

Sleep apnea symptoms can be confusing to patients because they believe they are getting enough sleep.

“It is possible to sleep the recommended amount of hours a day and still feel tired,” Denman explains. “Being tired after sleeping the recommended amount can be a sign that you are not experiencing the kind of sleep you need. Even if the patient is sleeping for eight hours a night, they still might not feel rested because their body keeps waking them up.”

What is Insomnia?

Insomnia is a condition that makes it hard for you to fall or stay asleep. You might also find yourself waking up earlier than you intend to.

There are two types of insomnia: acute and chronic. Acute insomnia lasts from a few days to several weeks and is usually caused by some kind of stressor, according to Mayo Clinic.

Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, lasts for a month or more.

“When these sleep symptoms occur on a regular basis (at least three nights per week for three months or more) and impair daytime functioning, it is considered a chronic insomnia disorder,” Jason Ong, PhD, Behavioral Sleep Medicine Director at Nox Health, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

According to Mayo Clinic, insomnia has numerous potential causes that include:

  • Bad sleep habits
  • Stress
  • Certain medications
  • Excessive eating late in the evening
  • Older age
  • Stimulants (caffeine, alcohol, nicotine)

Importantly, sleep apnea can also cause insomnia. 

How Do Doctors Determine Which Condition You Have?

Sleep apnea is diagnosed using a sleep study. This is normally done in a lab under the supervision of a sleep specialist. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, sleep studies measure the following:

  • Brain waves
  • Blood oxygen levels
  • Heart rate
  • Breathing rate
  • Leg and eye movements

Alternatively, you can complete a home sleep apnea test using a portable kit that provides a simplified version of an in-lab study. The U.S. National Library of Medicine notes that home sleep studies will typically record the following:

  • Breathing rate
  • Heart rate
  • Blood oxygen levels
  • Snoring

Your diagnostic results will tell you whether your breathing is interrupted while you sleepand, if so, how often. More than five episodes of shallow or paused breathing indicate the presence of sleep apnea, according to the US National Library of Medicine. However, your supervising doctor will be able to speak to you about the specifics of your condition after you've undergone testing. 

As for insomnia, Ong notes that it is “typically diagnosed using a clinical interview with the patient. Although not essential for diagnosis, a sleep diary or wrist actigraphy can provide day-to-day patterns about the symptoms of insomnia, which can provide important clinical information to inform the treatment plan.”

In cases of suspected insomnia, your doctor may also order a sleep study to rule out underlying conditions like sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome.

Think you may have sleep apnea? Start your journey to more restful sleep TODAY.

Untreated sleep disorders can negatively affect your physical and emotional health. Sleep testing can help you get the answers you need to receive the treatment you deserve. WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.