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About 40 million people in the United States suffer from chronic long-term sleep disorders, and an additional 20 million people experience occasional sleep problems.
*Source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Sleep Disorders Overview

Sleep disorderdescribes any condition that involves any trouble related to sleep, including the difficulty of falling or staying asleep, excessive sleepiness, issues with staying awake or falling asleep at inappropriate times or abnormal muscle activity and behaviors associated with sleep. More than 100 different disorders of sleeping and waking can be identified in these categories:

  • Problems with falling and staying asleep (insomnia)
  • Problems with staying awake (sleep apnea, narcolepsy, excessive daytime sleepiness and restless legs syndrome)
  • Problems with sleep schedules (circadian rhythm disorders)
  • Unusual behaviors, or parasomnias during sleep (such as nightmares, night terrors and sleep walking)


Symptoms and signs of sleep disorders vary widely, depending upon the disorder. Insomnia, a common medical complaint that occurs in as many as 15 to 30 percent of adults, most often stems from some other problem, such as stress and anxiety; depression; certain medications; use of caffeine, nicotine or alcohol; aging; or poor sleep habits or changes to sleep schedule.

Symptoms of insomnia include:

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep at night
  • Waking too early
  • Daytime fatigue or sleepiness
  • Irritability, depression or anxiety
  • Tension headaches
  • Diminished cognitive skills (short term memory, concentration)

Disorders of excessive sleepiness or hypersomnias include sleep apnea, narcolepsy and restless legs syndrome. Sleep apnea , is a common, but potentially dangerous disorder, in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. The two main types are: Obstructive sleep apnea, in which the airway collapses due to excessive relaxation of the throat muscles, and central sleep apnea, in which the brain fails to send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing. Complex sleep apnea is a combination of the two. A serious condition, sleep apnea can increase risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke

Symptoms include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Episodes of breathing cessation during sleep
  • Moodiness, irritability
  • Morning headaches
  • Poor concentration, decreased short-term memory
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness

Narcolepsy describes a chronic sleep disorder characterized by overwhelming daytime drowsiness and sudden attacks of sleep. The exact cause is unknown, but symptoms include:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Sudden loss of muscle tone (cataplexy)
  • Sleep paralysis
  • Hallucinations

Restless legs syndrome is a condition in which the legs feel extremely uncomfortable while you are sitting or lying down. The cause is unknown, but in some cases there may be a hereditary component. Pregnancy, neuropathy from advanced kidney disease or diabetes, or iron deficiency may trigger the symptoms.

Symptoms are often described as unpleasant sensations and movements in the calves, thighs, feet or arms and fluctuate in severity, usually worsening at night. Typically described as an urge to move the limbs, it is often relieved by walking.

Other sleep disorders occur when a consistent sleep/wake schedule is not maintained (e.g. regular traveling between time zones or shift work with rotating schedules), signs of which include excessive sleepiness, fatigue, headaches and poor concentration. Abnormal sleep behaviors, called parasomnias (nightmares, night terrors, sleep walking), usually manifest symptoms as described by their names.

Your WellStar sleep specialist is uniquely qualified to diagnose and explain any issues involving your sleep habits.

Risk Factors

As with symptoms, the risk factors for sleep disorders vary greatly depending upon the specific disorder. Often in disorders without a known cause, it is difficult to assess risk factors. For many parasomnias, the risks are greatest in children.

With insomnia, however, women are twice as likely to experience the disorder, and the risks for both genders increases with age, especially over the age of 60. Stress, schedule changes and mental health issues also escalate the risk of insomnia. Conversely, men are twice as likely to have obstructive sleep apnea. Other risks include excessive weight, high blood pressure (hypertension), aging, alcohol and drug use, smoking, family history and physical attributes such as a large neck circumference or narrowed airway.