Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders have sleep disturbances to varying degrees. In children with ASDs, sleep disturbances include frequent nocturnal awakenings, sleep-walking, sleep-talking, and abnormal sleeping patterns (i.e. delayed sleep phase syndrome or sleep apnea). In adults, sleep disturbances are less common but can include such problems as restless legs syndrome or periodic limb movement disorder. As with children, sleep disturbances may be caused by a variety of factors such as stress, changes in household schedules, illness, alcohol or drug use, or head trauma.
Sleep disorders such as excessive daytime sleepiness (OSA), narcolepsy, and chronic fatigue syndrome are common among adults with psychiatric illnesses. Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness. OSA is frequently confused with hyperactive or nervous sleepiness, but they are very different. Narcoleptics are also more likely to report a myriad of somatic complaints, including itching, muscle weakness, muscle spasms, depression, anxiety, and irritability.
There are several effective treatments for sleep disorders. Sleep medications such as Ambien (Lunesta, Ambien CR, and Minoxidil) are commonly used to treat severe OSA and other sleep disorders. These medications work by reducing the number of times that the patient awakens during the night, resulting in fewer waking hours. Sleep medications may be used to treat insomnia, which can also contribute to sleep apnea. Common treatments for both OSA and insomnia include:
Improving Sleep Displacement
Sleep studies have shown that there is a relationship between sleep disorders and medical conditions such as narcolepsy and diabetes. The presence of these medical conditions may increase the risk of falling asleep unexpectedly during the night. People with narcoleptics may experience difficulty falling asleep, even at a very low rate. In contrast, people who have diabetes are more likely to have comorbid sleep disorders such as OSA. Patients with narcoleptics should also avoid foods high in carbohydrates.
Many people who have sleeping problems also report feeling restless and irritable throughout the day. Symptoms of restless leg syndrome include leg pain and discomfort when awake, as well as feelings of depression and stress. The National Institutes of Health has identified two specific brainwave activities that are abnormal during sleep: deep brain activity (dowsing) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The most common treatment for these symptoms is anti-depressants, herbal remedies, and relaxing activities such as yoga and meditation. In addition, many people find that aromatherapy, acupuncture, massage, and biofeedback can help to alleviate symptoms of restless leg syndrome.
There are other, more traditional, sleep disorders that require different treatments for varying degrees of severity. The term “restless legs syndrome” generally refers to RLS. While sleep apnea is sometimes confused with RLS, they are actually quite different. Apnea is caused by breathing interruptions while RLS is caused by excessive muscle activity throughout the night. Because RLS is sometimes confused with restless legs, most doctors will recommend RLS treatments in order to avoid the use of ephedra and other dangerous medications.
In addition to standard RLS treatments, there are several alternative treatments available for those with this disorder. One type of alternative treatment for sleep paralysis is cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy was first used to treat panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, it has been found to be effective in treating sleep paralysis, as well. CBT treatments may improve sleep and allow patients to feel better about going to bed.
If you or someone you know suffers from this common sleep disorder, don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about it. A sleep disorder doctor can often find ways to treat your sleep disorder and help you get better nights’ sleep. Remember, if you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, you should always visit a doctor to rule out any serious underlying medical condition. Keep in mind, some medications can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep so it’s important to discuss this with your doctor. Sleep disorders can be treated and, in many cases, they can improve your quality of life.