What is sleep problems?

Sleep problems in adults: Overview

Everyone has trouble sleeping once in a while. Dogs barking, the wind howling, or overeating may make it hard for you to sleep. But sleep problems may be a symptom of a medical or mental health problem. Think about whether a medical or mental health problem is causing you to sleep poorly. Treating a long-term sleep problem without looking for the cause may hide the real reason for your poor sleep.

Sleep problems can have many causes.


Insomnia is a common sleep problem that can affect your quality of life. It can cause you to have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. You may wake up during the night or wake up too early in the morning.

Short-term insomnia can last for days to weeks. It may get better in less than a month. Chronic insomnia is ongoing. It lasts at least 3 months.

Insomnia is linked to many things. A stressful event or a change in your usual habits can lead to short-term insomnia. Examples include a death in your family or loss of a job. Many medical conditions are linked to insomnia. Examples include anxiety, chronic pain, depression, and sleep apnea. Many prescription and over-the-counter medicines also may lead to insomnia. Your bedtime habits may also affect insomnia. Examples include drinking caffeine before bedtime, watching TV or using your phone in bed, and not keeping a regular schedule for bedtime and waking up.

Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is one of several sleep disorders. It refers to repeated episodes of not breathing during sleep for at least 10 seconds (apneic episodes). It usually is caused by a blockage in the nose, mouth, or throat (upper airways). When airflow through the nose and mouth is blocked, breathing may stop for 10 seconds or longer. People who have sleep apnea usually snore loudly and are very tired during the day. It can affect children and adults.


Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that has distinct symptoms. They include:

  • Sudden sleep attacks. They may occur during any type of activity at any time of day. You may fall asleep while doing things like eating dinner, driving the car, or carrying on a conversation. These sleep attacks can occur several times a day. They may last from a few minutes to several hours.
  • Sudden, brief periods of muscle weakness while you are awake (cataplexy). This weakness may affect specific muscle groups or may affect the entire body. It's often brought on by strong emotional reactions, such as laughing or crying.
  • Hallucinations before falling asleep.
  • Brief loss of the ability to move when you are falling asleep or just waking up (sleep paralysis).


Parasomnias are undesirable physical activities that occur during sleep. They involve skeletal muscle activity, nervous system changes, or both. Night terrors and sleepwalking are two types. Sleep can be hard for people who have parasomnias. While "asleep," the person may walk, scream, rearrange furniture, or eat things that are not normally eaten.

Parasomnia can cause odd, distressing, and sometimes dangerous nighttime activities. These disorders sometimes have medically explainable causes. They may be able to be treated.

Restless legs syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a condition that produces an intense feeling of discomfort, aching, or twitching deep inside the legs. Jerking movements may affect the toes, ankles, knees, and hips. Moving the legs or walking around usually relieves the discomfort for a short time.

The exact cause of RLS isn't known. The symptoms most often occur while a person is asleep or is trying to fall asleep. The twitching or jerking leg movements may wake the person up. This can cause insomnia, unrestful sleep, and daytime sleepiness.

Excessive daytime sleepiness

When a sleep problem or lack of time keeps you from getting a good night's sleep, excessive daytime sleepiness may occur. While almost everyone has daytime sleepiness from time to time, it can cause serious problems. It can lead to car crashes, poor work or school performance, and work-related accidents.

Talk to a doctor if you're sleepy during the day and this gets in the way of the normal things you do. Do not drive or use machinery while you're drowsy.

Managing sleep problems after childbirth

Sleep problems are common when you are caring for a new baby. These tips may help you get a good night's sleep.

  • Sleep when your baby sleeps.
  • Keep your naps as short as possible.
  • Use your bed only for sleep.
  • Try to have a regular feeding pattern if you are breastfeeding.
  • If you are bottle-feeding, have others feed the baby sometimes so you can rest.
  • Limit caffeine, such as coffee, tea, cola drinks, and chocolate.
  • Try relaxation methods like meditation or guided imagery.

When You're Not Sleeping Well

How can you get help for sleep problems?

If you often have trouble sleeping or you feel very tired and find it hard to function during the day, talk with your doctor. Your doctor can check for any health problems that may be affecting your sleep. And let your doctor know about all medicines and natural health products you take. Some may affect your sleep.

A counselor or therapist can help you cope with stress and may offer techniques for falling asleep. There are also steps you can take on your own to manage your stress.

To help you fall asleep, you may need to change your routine before you go to bed. Try limiting caffeine during the day. And avoid using your TV, computer, or smartphone while you are in bed.

What might cause poor sleeping?

Many things can cause sleep problems, including:

  • Changes to your sleep schedule.
  • Stress. Stress can be caused by fear about a single event, such as giving a speech. Or you may have ongoing stress, such as worry about work or school.
  • Depression, anxiety, and other mental or emotional conditions.
  • Changes in your sleep habits or surroundings. This includes changes that happen where you sleep, such as noise, light, or sleeping in a different bed. It also includes changes in your sleep pattern, such as having jet lag or working a late shift.
  • Health problems, such as pain, breathing problems, and restless legs syndrome.
  • Lack of regular exercise.
  • Using alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine before bed.

Sleep Problems: Getting Past Barriers to Powering Down

©2011-2024 Healthwise, Incorporated

The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.