What are the most common types of sleep disorders?

It is estimated that there are over 100 types of sleep disorders. Common sleep disorders are outlined below.

Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a breathing problem during sleep that creates a sleep disorder. Sleep apnea occurs when a person's breathing is interrupted during sleep. Distinctive signs of sleep apnea include:

  • frequent waking episodes at night
  • disrupted breathing, gasping, gagging, or choking for air during sleep

There are three types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) : Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea and is caused by an obstruction in the airway, which actually stops the air flow in the nose and mouth. Throat and abdominal breathing continue normally. Obstructive sleep apnea is commonly accompanied by snoring and causes the sleeper to wake up, gasping or snorting, and then go back to sleep again.
  • Central sleep apnea (CSA) : Central sleep apnea is a much less common type than Obstructive sleep apnea. Central sleep apnea is due to a brain signal problem: the brain signal that instructs the body to breathe is delayed. Different from obstructive sleep apnea, oral breathing and throat and abdominal breathing all cease at the same time . The periods of breathing interruption may last a few seconds, and breathing may be too shallow to provide oxygen to the blood and tissues. Central sleep apnea may be associated with:
    • irregular heartbeat,
    • high blood pressure,
    • heart attack, and/or
    • stroke.
  • Mixed sleep apnea : If you experience a combination of Obstructive sleep apnea and Central sleep apnea, you have mixed sleep apnea. Mixed sleep apnea is most commonly found in infants or young children who have abnormal breathing control.

Sleep apnea is a very serious sleep disorder. A doctor or sleep center can help assess your condition and recommend appropriate treatment. See Helpguide's Sleep Apnea: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment for more information.

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) and periodic limb movement in sleep (PLMS)

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder characterized by uncomfortable, tingly or creeping sensations in your legs, which create an uncontrollable urge to keep them moving.

Symptoms of RLS include:

  • irritating sensations in your legs that give you an overwhelming urge to walk around and move them
  • little movements of the toes, feet or legs may be visible when you rest
  • very restless sleep

Similarly, people with periodic limb movement in sleep (PLMS) experience rhythmic jerking of the feet or legs, which interrupts sleep.

While there is no cure for these disorders, treatment is highly effective - 90% of those treated experience relief of their symptoms through lifestyle changes and medication. See Helpguide's Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) and Periodic Limb Movements in Sleep (PLMS): Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment for more information.


Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that impairs the ability of the central nervous system to regulate sleep. People with narcolepsy experience:

  • excessive daytime sleepiness and
  • intermittent, uncontrollable episodes of falling asleep during the daytime.

Other symptoms typically associated with narcolepsy include:

  • cataplexy (short-lived intermittent muscle weakness),
  • hypnagogic hallucinations (hallucinations while falling asleep or waking),
  • sleep paralysis (paralysis while falling asleep or waking), and
  • automatic behavior.

Narcolepsy usually begins when a person is in their teens or early twenties. Doctors typically recommend a combination of medication and behavioral treatments for the condition. See Helpguide's Narcolepsy: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment for more information.


Parasomnias encompass a number of disruptive sleep events, or "disorders of arousal," including:

    • sleep walking and sleep talking
    • sleep terrors and nightmares
    • partial seizures
    • violent behavior during sleep
    • sleep-related eating or drinking disorders
    • REM sleep behavior disorder (acting out dreams)

Often, a person does not recall their experience of the parasomnic event the following day. Parasomnias are often attributed to stress, depression, or other psychological and medical conditions. Treatment for parasomnias may involve lifestyle changes, medication, hypnosis, guided imagery, or some combination thereof. Your physician or sleep specialist can assist you in finding the best-suited treatment based on your individual symptoms.