Sleep Disorder Treatments

Sleep Disorder Treatments


Sleep disorder treatments help reduce symptoms associated with many types of sleep disorders. Physicians generally prefer to use the least invasive treatment method possible. Simple lifestyle changes alone are often enough to significantly reduce or eliminate sleep disorder symptoms.

In some cases, a physician may recommend additional treatment methods for patients with sleep disorders. These may include:

  • Medications. A variety of medications may be used to treat sleep disorders. They may include over-the-counter or prescription formulations.
  • Relaxation therapies. Various techniques are available that can help patients to experience a greater sense of relaxation (e.g., meditation), which may improve sleep.
  • Psychotherapy and cognitive behavior therapy. These forms of therapy may lessen a patient’s stress and anxiety, and reduce symptoms of sleep disorders.
  • Breathing devices. Patients with sleep apnea may require a form of mechanical breathing aid known as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP).
  • Surgery. Surgery to remove excess throat tissue may sometimes relieve symptoms associated with sleep apnea.

Lifestyle changes are particularly helpful in treating sleep disorders, especially insomnia. Such changes may include losing weight, engaging in regular exercise and avoiding substances that inhibit or disrupt sleep (e.g., caffeine, alcohol). Establishing a consistent and relaxing bedtime routine can also help alleviate sleep disorder symptoms.

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About sleep disorder treatments

Sleep disorder treatments are therapies to help reduce symptoms associated with sleep disorders. Recommended treatments may vary, depending on the type and severity of disorder that is present. In most cases, physicians prefer the least invasive treatment possible.

Simple lifestyle changes alone may be enough to significantly reduce or eliminate symptoms. These changes may include losing weight if a patient is overweight and avoiding consumption of alcohol and caffeine. Because alcohol acts as a sedative, people may use it to help them fall asleep. However, alcohol disrupts sleep patterns and inhibits the amount of deep, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that occurs. This keeps people from obtaining adequate amounts of sleep

In some cases, a physician may recommend the use of certain prescription or over-the-counter medications to treat sleep disorders. This may include:

  • Tranquilizers or certain drugs that treat Parkinson’s disease. These may be used to treat severe forms of restless leg syndrome (sensations felt in the legs when at rest) and periodic limb movement disorder.
  • Stimulant medications may help prevent episodes of sudden sleep in patients with narcolepsy.
  • Antidepressants are often effective in alleviating cataplexy (the sudden loss of muscle control during intense emotions), which often occurs with narcolepsy.
  • Benzodiazepines are sometimes used to treat patients with insomnia that does not respond to lifestyle changes. However, because of potential side-effects, benzodiazepines should usually only be used for brief periods of time.
  • Non-benzodiazepine sedative hypnotics may be used to treat patients with chronic insomnia.

Additional sleep disorder treatments may include:

  • Breathing devices. Patients with sleep apnea may require a form of mechanical breathing aid known as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). Patients wear this special mask over their nose and mouth to help prevent cessation of breathing during sleep. In cases of mild sleep apnea, patients may merely require a dental device that is worn in the mouth and that keeps the jaw forward to help facilitate breathing during sleep.
  • Relaxation therapies. Specific formal techniques may help patients relax, which can improve sleep. These methods include progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, imagery training, biofeedback and hypnosis. Patients can usually learn these techniques over a series of weeks.
  • Psychotherapy. Also known as talk therapy or counseling, psychotherapy may help alleviate stress and anxiety and improve sleep patterns.
  • Cognitive behavior therapy is sometimes useful in treating sleep disorders such as insomnia.
  • Surgery. Surgery to remove excess throat tissue or enlarged tonsils and adenoids (e.g., tonsillectomy) can sometimes relieve symptoms of sleep apnea. This type of surgery helps to remove any physical cause of airway blockage.

In some cases, treating certain existing medical conditions may help relieve sleep disorder symptoms. For example, treating an iron deficiency may help relieve the symptoms of restless leg syndrome.

Lifestyle changes as a sleep disorder treatment

In many cases, patients can make personal lifestyle changes that often help to reduce sleep disorder symptoms. Lifestyle changes are particularly helpful in treating insomnia. About 85 percent of people with insomnia will see an improvement in their condition after making lifestyle changes, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Making changes to one’s lifestyle may help alleviate symptoms of most types of sleep disorders. In some cases, specific changes may be recommended for specific disorders. For example:

  • Losing weight and avoiding alcohol or other sedatives before sleep may relieve symptoms associated with mild cases of sleep apnea.
  • Warm baths and stretching exercises may help relax muscles and prevent symptoms of restless leg syndrome (sensations felt in the legs when at rest) and periodic limb movement disorder, which conditions may disrupt sleep.
  • Eating lighter meals (such as vegetarian foods) during the day may help patients with narcolepsy stave off episodes of sudden sleep. This is because less of the body’s energy is required during digestion of a light meal.

Monitoring which foods and beverages are consumed is an important component of treating sleep disorder symptoms.

Alcohol and caffeine should be avoided for at least four to six hours prior to bedtime. The effect of these substances on a person’s ability to sleep varies dramatically from person to person, but both can inhibit sleep. Alcohol may initially have a sedative effect on the body, but it tends to promote restlessness during the second half of the sleep cycle. Caffeine is a stimulant that keeps people alert.

Nicotine is another stimulant that may impair a person’s sleep and should be avoided, particularly just prior to bedtime. In addition, certain foods (e.g., acidic and spicy foods) that cause heartburn should be avoided. Heartburn may worsen when a person lies down, potentially disrupting sleep. Drinking too many liquids before bedtime should be avoided because it makes a person more likely to awaken during the night.

Additional lifestyle tips that may improve sleep include:

  • Establish a consistent and relaxing bedtime routine. Waking up and going to bed at the same time on a consistent basis is often crucial to relieving symptoms for a wide variety of sleep disorders, including circadian rhythm sleep disorders. People are encouraged to engage in a relaxing activity for a half-hour prior to bedtime. This can include reading, listening to soft music, meditating or engaging in any activity that promotes relaxation. It also is important to avoid exercise or eating large meals within two hours of bedtime, and not to nap after 3 p.m.
  • Exercise regularly for 20 to 30 minutes a day. Remaining active helps facilitate sleep so long as the activity is not performed too close to bedtime. It is best to work out in the afternoon when possible, as some research indicates that afternoon exercise promotes deep sleep.
  • Maintain a dark, cool and quiet environment for sleeping. The ideal climate for sleep varies from person to person. However, it is generally true that cooler climates with low humidity promote sleep for most people. It also important to make sure that a person’s mattress and pillows are not worn out and that they offer proper back and neck support to the sleeper.
  • Take warm baths before bed. Some studies have found that people who take warm baths before bed tend to fall asleep more easily. Some experts believe this is due to the muscle-relaxing effects of the bath. Others suggest that the warm bath elevates the body temperature, which then cools when the person steps out of the bath. As the body temperature cools, it may signal that the time is right for sleep.
  • Use the bed only for sleeping. Some people read, watch television or even eat in bed. During all of these activities, the body receives signals to stay alert. As a result, the brain can begin to associate the bed with activities other than sleeping. For this reason, it is important for people to use the bed only for sleeping and sexual activity.
  • Do not lie awake in bed for more than 20 consecutive minutes. If sleep is elusive after 20 minutes of lying down in bed, people with sleep disorders should get out of bed and engage in quiet, restful activity (e.g., reading, meditation) for a period of time before returning to bed.
  • Increase exposure to light during waking hours. Sunlight is the strongest influence on regulating a person’s biological clock, which helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Research indicates that light therapy, which uses special lamps to increase light exposure, administered during the evening helps people to sleep later into the morning.
  • Maintain a sleep diary. A sleep diary can help to provide information to both a patient and physician. Patients can keep track of their sleeping patterns over time, as well as the influence of various lifestyle factors (e.g., consumption of caffeine or alcohol) on the amount or quality of their sleep. 

Questions for your doctor on sleep treatments

Preparing questions in advance can help patients to have more meaningful discussions with healthcare professionals regarding their condition. Patients may wish to ask their doctor the following questions related to sleep disorder treatments:

  1. What signs or symptoms indicate I may have a sleep disorder?
  2. What type of sleep disorder do you suspect? Why?
  3. Will you need to perform any tests to confirm your diagnosis? How do I prepare for these tests?
  4. Do you recommend that I undergo a sleep study? Why or why not?
  5. What factors may be associated with the development of my sleep disorder?
  6. What are my treatment options? What are the risks and benefits of each?
  7. For how long can I safely take medication to treat my sleep disorder?
  8. Do I have another condition that may be contributing to my sleep disorder? If it is treated, will it help my sleep?
  9. What lifestyle changes do you recommend I make to improve my sleep?
  10. What is my long-term prognosis?
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