insomnia and sleep apnea differences
Sleep Apnea Research

The Most Important Differences Between Sleep Apnea and Insomnia

Like maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regimen, getting a good night’s sleep is imperative to your overall health. Sleep allows your body to rest and restore energy so it can carry out important physiological and psychological functions. Sleep Apnea and insomnia are the two most common sleep disorders, and to treat them properly you must understand the causes, symptoms, and differences between the two.

insomnia and sleep apnea differences

What is Insomnia?

The Academy of Sleep Science defines insomnia as “repeated difficulty with sleep initiation, duration, consolidation, or quality that occurs despite adequate opportunity and circumstances for sleep, and results in some form of daytime impairment.”

Signs of insomnia include having trouble falling asleep, waking in the middle of the night, and not being able to go back to sleep. As a result, you may feel tired and experience trouble concentrating on everyday tasks. Insomnia can last for a night or can be chronic for months and even years.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep-related breathing disorder (SRBD) that is characterized by repetitive, brief interruptions of airflow during sleep, which cause the brain to wake. The most common form, Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), occurs when airflow is blocked, often due to a narrowed airway caused by excess tissue, enlarged tonsils, or a large uvula. Symptoms may include snoring, morning headaches, dry mouth when waking up, and frequent trips to the bathroom at night.

What is the Difference Between Sleep Apnea and Insomnia?

Historically, these conditions have been conceptualized as orthogonal, meaning insomnia is considered to be a symptom of Sleep Apnea. But how are Sleep Apnea and insomnia different?

Definition: Insomnia is a condition where an individual has difficulty sleeping, while Sleep Apnea is a condition where the individual’s breathing gets interrupted during sleep.

Scope: Sleep Apnea is more of a physical disorder, while insomnia is a much broader term that covers any condition where someone has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.

Signs and Symptoms: The signs and symptoms of insomnia include waking up too early in the morning, the inability to fall back to sleep, and going through episodes of uncomfortable or disturbed sleep. The signs of Sleep Apnea are chronic snoring, choking, and gasping for breath.

Cause: Insomnia can be caused by hormonal or mental conditions, such as depression, stress, anxiety, and menopause. Substances like nicotine, caffeine, excessive alcohol, drug abuse, and over-the-counter drugs can also cause insomnia. Sleep Apnea is typically caused by a physical condition that causes airflow blockage.

Treatment: Treatment options for insomnia range from pharmaceutical drugs and behavioral or psychological therapies to lifestyle changes. Lifestyle changes may include avoiding distractions during sleep, avoiding or shortening of the duration of naps during the daytime, consuming a light diet at night, and avoiding caffeine and nicotine. Treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnea is usually CPAP therapy, a machine that sends constant pressurized air into the airway to ensure that it stays open during sleep. Lifestyle modifications such as regular exercise, weight reduction, healthy diet, and quitting smoking or alcohol can improve this condition.

While both insomnia and Sleep Apnea are recognized sleep disorders, they are distinctly different conditions. Interestingly enough, the majority of insomniacs may be aware that they have sleep breathing issues but they usually do not connect their sleep breathing problems to their insomnia. This is why you see many people with Sleep Apnea suffering from insomnia, as well. Once we are able to properly identify the causes and symptoms, treatment is just around the corner.

5 comments

    Thanks for sharing the good tips. Really Helpful for Patients suffering from Insomnia.

    My Mother was also suffering from this problem since a long time. After recommendation from one of my relatives, I took her to The Center for Sleep Medicine center in Chicagoland. Its been a year since then and she has completely recovered from it.

    I would recommend people dealing with this problem to consult with sleep specialist and recover soon from it.

    Thank you for this article. I have insomnia and have been unable to fall asleep with the CPAP. My doctor did not run any tests to rule out other health issues. It follow healthy bedtime practices. It is frustrating to have them treat you like you are a mental case when they don’t understand the complex nature of the problem.

    Many times sleep doctors run people through with a prescription for cpap/apap machine with very little help. Sleep techs can be more help if you can get access to one. I have insomnia both before and after cpap. I looked at my sleep data with a program called Sleephead, see cpaptalk.com for more info. I have a pattern of severe sleep apnea starting between 2 and 4 am. That’s when I wake and can’t get back to sleep. Been going on for several years. Think it’s because I tie to my back and can’t breathe out against the increased pressure from the machine. So lately I’ve been trying brisk walking to strengthen my lungs and also been doing tongue and throat exercises for sleep apnea. If this doesn’t help enough, I will return to my sleep clinic again and insist on trying a bipap machine, no pressure on exhale.

      Hi Sylvia,

      You know if you have questions about your treatment, you can call one of our CPAP Experts at 1-800-356-5221. They can give you some tips if you’re stuck in your treatment. Insomnia is difficult enough to deal with, but maybe there are some options you haven’t explored yet?

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