When to Call a Doctor About Sleep Disorders

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on July 28, 2021

A sleep disorder is any one or more of a group of conditions that get in the way of good sleep. These disorders can take a toll on your physical and mental health, and your quality of life.

Over the long term, they can lead to moodiness, anxiety, irritability, and depression. You may find it harder to remember things and concentrate, which could cause problems at home and at work.

Constant sleepiness also could lead to car crashes and other accidents that could injure you and others.

And long-term, they may be a cause of chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure.

Though there are more than 100 different specific sleep disorders, the five most common types are:

  • Sleep apnea: Your breathing is interrupted or abnormal during sleep, typically by heavy snoring.
  • Insomnia: You can’t get to sleep or stay asleep through the night. 
  • Narcolepsy: You feel extremely sleepy during the day and may fall asleep suddenly.  
  • Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS): Your legs feel uncomfortable and you have an urge to move them as you fall asleep.
  • REM Sleep Behavior Disorder: You act out dreams in your sleep with talking, walking, or swinging arms.

One way to evaluate the quality of your sleep and to see whether you have a sleep disorder is to know the characteristics of various sleep disorders. Keeping track of your sleep habits by keeping a sleep diary may also help you and your doctor identify the problem.

Sleep Disorder Warning Signs

Anyone can experience sleep problems from time to time. But if it happens regularly, it may be time to ask your doctor whether you have a sleep disorder. Ask yourself the following questions. If the answer is yes to one or more of them, it could be a sign of a sleep disorder. Do you:

  • Struggle to get to sleep?
  • Struggle to stay asleep?
  • Feel tired in the day, even after 7-plus hours of sleep?
  • Find it harder to do regular daytime activities?
  • Snore very loudly?
  • Fall asleep while driving?
  • Struggle to stay awake when inactive, such as when watching television or reading?
  • Have difficulty paying attention or concentrating at work, school, or home?
  • Have performance problems at work or school?
  • Often get told by others that you look tired?
  • Have difficulty with your memory?
  • Have slowed responses?
  • Have difficulty controlling your emotions?
  • Feel the need to take naps almost every day?

Keeping a Sleep Diary

In order to determine if you have a sleep disorder, pay attention to your sleep habits by keeping a sleep diary and discussing patterns and characteristics of your sleep with your doctor. It is important to note that insomnia can be a sleep disorder, or a symptom of another problem. Many common sleep problems can be resolved with behavioral treatments and increased attention to proper sleep hygiene. That means, among other things:

  • Keep a quiet pre-bedtime routine -- take a hot bath, read, or do some light stretching.
  • Maintain a cool, dark, quiet, sleeping space.
  • Avoid loud activities or hard conversations late at night.
  • Don’t exercise too close to bedtime; it can interfere with sleep.
  • Avoid heavy, fatty foods late at night.
  • Try to get sunlight early in the morning to keep your sleep cycle on track.

If you find that your sleep problems continue, even with good sleep hygiene, it is likely time to consult your doctor about a possible sleep disorder.

What to Expect at the Doctor

Your doctor will give you a full physical examination and ask you about your symptoms, lifestyle, medical history, and any other illnesses you might have. If there is no obvious cause for your symptoms or if your sleeplessness and daytime tiredness continue, your doctor might suggest a sleep study.

That’s when you sleep in a special room where a medical team can monitor what happens in your brain and body. You usually have small sensors stuck to your head and chest or elsewhere. There are no needles involved. The team will look for possible sleep disruptions. They’ll pay attention to a number of things including:

  • Eye movements
  • Pulse
  • Breathing rate
  • Body movements
  • Snoring
  • Blood oxygen levels

It might take a couple of weeks for your medical team to organize and analyze the information. You’ll make another appointment to discuss the results.

Show Sources


The National Sleep Foundation

UpToDate: “Insomnia (Beyond the Basics).”

American Academy of Sleep Medicine: “What is Insomnia?” “Sleep Disorders.”

Mayo Clinic: “Sleep Disorders.”

Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine: “Sleep and Disease Risk,” “Sleep, Performance, and Public Safety,” “An Overview of Sleep Disorders.”

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