When to Call a Doctor About Sleep Disorders

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 17, 2023
4 min read

A sleep disorder is a condition that gets 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, crankiness, 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 cause chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure.

There are more than 100 specific sleep disorders. The five most common types are:

  • Sleep apnea: Your breathing is interrupted or abnormal during sleep, and it typically comes with 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 signs 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.

Anyone can have 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 during 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 trouble 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 problems with your memory?
  • Have slowed responses?
  • Have a hard time controlling your emotions?
  • Feel the need to take naps almost every day?  

While it's common to sometimes have problems getting to sleep or staying asleep, this can also be a sign of insomnia or another health condition. Call your doctor if:

  • Your symptoms last longer than 4 weeks or interfere with your ability to function
  • You wake up many times during the night gasping for breath
  • You're taking a new medication you suspect is interrupting your sleep
  • You notice an uncomfortable, painful, "crawling" sensation in your legs when trying to sleep or when your legs aren't moving for long periods (such as when driving or on an airplane).
  • Heartburn keeps you awake 
  • Physical pain wakes you during the night
  • You've noticed changes in your mood (such as feeling depressed), energy, and appetite

To figure out whether you might have a sleep disorder, pay attention to your sleep habits by keeping a sleep diary and discussing patterns and traits of your sleep with your doctor. Keep in mind that insomnia can be a sleep disorder, or a symptom of another problem. Many common sleep problems can be resolved with behavioral treatments and more 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's probably time to talk to your doctor about a possible sleep disorder.

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's 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:

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.

If you have pain that gets a lot worse or notice you're having a much harder time breathing at night, you may need emergency medical care. Get medical help right away if you have a worsening mood or agitation that results in suicidal, homicidal, or other dangerous thoughts.