Common sleep problems

Nearly everyone has difficulty getting to sleep from time to time, but for some people, this can be a regular ongoing problem. When this happens, not only do you feel tired but it can really interfere with your day-to-day functioning and affect your health. Learning how to manage sleep problems can greatly improve your quality of life.

Examples of common sleep problems

Sleep problem Description
Insomnia
  • This is a condition where you are having trouble sleeping or staying asleep for long enough.
  • It generally includes difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep (poor sleep quality) or waking much too early.
  • Read more about insomnia.
Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA)
  • This is a condition in which you stop breathing while you are asleep.
  • The usual symptoms are snoring, not feeling refreshed on waking, day-time sleepiness, altered mood and morning headaches.
  • Read more about obstructive sleep apnoea.
Snoring
  • This is where you make a snorting or rattling noise when you breathe during sleep.
  • The noise comes from the vibrating of the soft palate and tissue in your mouth, nose or throat.
  • Some people snore occasionally and the sound they make isn't too loud, while others may snore every night, loud enough to be heard in the next room. 
Sleep deprivation
  • This is a condition that develops if you don't get enough sleep, or you sleep at the wrong time of day (that is, you're out of sync with your body's natural clock).
  • It also includes not sleeping well or getting all of the different types of sleep that your body needs. 
  • Read more about the different types of sleep.
Restless leg syndrome
  • This a sleep disorder that causes an intense, often irresistible urge to move your legs. This sensation is brought on by resting, for example lying down in bed or sitting for prolonged periods, such as when you are driving or watching a movie.
  • It typically occurs in the evening, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
  • It can lead to daytime sleepiness, irritability and concentration.
  • Read more about restless leg syndrome.

How do I know if I have a sleep problem?

If you often have trouble getting to sleep or if you often wake during the night, then you may not be getting enough sleep. Some of the tools or quizzes used to assess sleep are shown below.

Tools and quizzes to assess your sleep

You can fill these in at home and if the results indicate that you may have a sleep problem, print your results and discuss these with your family doctor.

  • The Auckland Sleep Questionnaire Goodfellow Unit, University of Auckland
    • To help you establish the causes of your sleep problems.
  • The Epworth Sleepiness Score Sleep Apnoea Association of NZ
    • To help you recognise possible sleep apnoea.
  • Sleep diary American Academy of Sleep Medicine
    • Using this 2-week long sleep diary is a useful way to track your lifestyle habits or daily activities that could be contributing to your sleep problems.

What can I do to improve my sleep?

If you are experiencing the effects of poor sleep, great improvements can be made by making a few changes to your daily routine and habits. So you can be more energetic and productive during your waking hours, here are 5 simple tips to help you sleep better at night:

  1. Set your body clock
  2. Wind down at bedtime
  3. Keep your evenings stimulant-free
  4. Go to bed when you're tired
  5. Be active in the day 

For more detailed information on the 5 simple tips to help you sleep better at night, see Tips to improve your sleeping habits.

What treatment is available for sleep problems?

If these measures haven't helped, then visit your doctor to discuss whether you need other treatment. Your doctor will want to find out about what has been happening in your life, your pattern of sleep and whether you have any other health conditions. This is because the treatment for sleep problems varies depending on the underlying issue.

Sleep disorder Treatment options
Insomnia
  • The main treatment options for insomnia is determining if there is an underlying cause and eliminating that cause.
  • It can also help to adopt good sleep habits.
  • Another possible treatment is of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) that's specifically designed for people with insomnia (called CBT-I). Its aim is to change unhelpful thoughts and behaviours that may be contributing to your insomnia. It's an effective treatment for many people and can have long-lasting results.  
  • Read more about insomnia.
Obstructive sleep apnoea
  • The treatments for sleep apnoea include weight loss, cutting down on alcohol, the use of dental appliances such as mouthguards, and continuous positive airway pressure (CAP) machines.    
  • Read more about obstructive sleep apnoea.
Snoring
  • Try sleeping on your side, as this sometimes works for some people.
  • Making changes to your lifestyle such as losing weight, cutting down on alcohol and quitting smoking can be helpful.
  • Talk to your doctor about special devices that you can use in your nose or mouth to reduce your snoring.  
  • Read our tips to reduce snoring.
Sleep deprivation
  • The main treatment for sleep deprivation is to increase your total sleep time.
  • This is mainly done by treating the cause of your sleep deprivation.
  • Your doctor will help you assess the causes of your interrupted sleep.
Restless legs syndrome

A note on sleeping medicines

Sleeping tablets or medicines that encourage sleep are not used often because they have the potential to cause harm. Using sleeping tablets on an ongoing basis can lead to you developing a dependency on them, as well as an increased risk of falls, confusion and difficulties with driving. Research has shown that taking sleeping tablets for more than 10 nights in a row can make sleeping difficulties worse.

If you're taking sleeping tablets on a regular basis, ask your doctor about ways to help you stop taking them. It may be necessary to stop taking them gradually, taking several weeks to months to stop completely.

Read more about sleeping medicines (hypnotics).

Learn more

Sleep disorders Medline Plus, National Institutes of Health, 2014
Why sleep matters Healthy Sleep – Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, USA
Common sleep problems (13 languages) Health Information Translations
10 medical reasons for feeling tired NHS Choices, UK, 2013
5 ways to stop snoring NHS Choices, UK, 2014 

 

Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Last reviewed: 19 Sep 2017