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.


  1. Nidhish Gowda Reply

    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.

    • MICHAEL LIN Reply

      Thank you for the kind words and for sharing your story. We agree! 🙂

    • Anish Bista Reply

      Hi Nidish
      As u mentioned Its been a year since then and she has completely recovered from it.?

      I’m also suffering from this problem since a long time I has been researching way to get rid by this sypthom I didn’t get back recovered please kindly advise me

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. Kevin Keane Reply

    I wake up after almost the same duration of sleep everynight, for months (4-4.5hrs per night)..It takes hours to get back to sleep,that’s even if I do..I am a mild snorer,have never been known to snore or choke..its impossible to fall asleep during daytime hours,regardless of how exhausted I am,and they insist I have Sleep apnoea.. This whole sleep industry is just Big business gouging a buck from people who are crying out for help..

    • Hi Kevin, i’m sorry to hear that you are not getting very good sleep. Have you had a sleep study? If not, I would strongly recommend you speaking with your doctor about having one. If you were diagnosed with Sleep Apnea, after having a sleep study, are you currently on some type of Sleep Therapy? If not, you may benefit from using a CPAP machine, or some other therapy that your doctor would prescribe as medically necessary.

      Our goal is to help customers get a better nights rest! Even though, it may be hard to grasp the concept of being required to use some form of CPAP Therapy at first, the therapy can and has changed many lives!

      If you would like to speak with us regarding any aspect of CPAP Therapy, please feel free to reach us at: 1-800-356-5221, or e-mail us at: cpap@cpap.com.

      We wish you the best!

    • Kevin, I was really interested to see your note. For many years I woke up after 4-4.5 hrs with a serious headache and serious fatigue all day. So I had an overnight sleep study done. I was told I have moderate sleep apnea and was set up with a ResMed CPAP machine. I started using it and the machine reported <5 events each night and no mask leaks. The app that comes with the machine excitedly told me I was doing great and should be feeling huge benefits soon! Only problem: I was still waking up after 4-4.5 hrs with a splitting headache and was still super fatigued all day. When I reported this I was asked if the mask was comfortable (it was).The pressure and humidity on machine are automated, so that was not the problem. I was told to add chin strap to prevent mouth leaks (I did). I was also asked if I took meds, drank coffee, drank alcohol (I don’t). I was finally told I just had to give it time to start to work. Well, it’s a month later. I’m still using my CPAP and I still wake up after 4-4.5 hrs with a headache, and am fatigued all day. So far the only change I’ve experienced is having less money and having a big machine I have to maintain.. And the ongoing message from the CPAP peddlers that it’s my fault their tech doesn’t work – I just have to “gain confidence with my therapy”, whatever they hell that means. I’m about done.


  6. Denise Romeo Reply

    I’ve read all the comments and stories about not sleeping properly and still not finding relief with the CPAP machine . For years I’ve not slept properly either and yes needed a CPAP too , which wasn’t helping much till I finally found the “right” sleep doctor ! A doctor who knows that there is a difference between sleep apnea and insomnia! This new sleep doctor put me through what’s called CBT cognitive behavioral therapy,, it’s therapy that retrains your brain and body on how to sleep . It took me about 7-8 weeks but it worked ! And know I’m finally able to sleep 6-8 hrs ! I still wake up now and then through the night but I’ve learned how to myself back to sleep . So my point is ,, look for a doctor who does CBT !

  7. This is follow-up to my previous comment above describing lack of effectiveness in using a CPAP machine: I went back to my primary care physician several months ago and reported my lack of progress on getting sleep. He speculated my apneas were due to chronic (nonalergenic) sinus inflammation, later confirmed via a CT scan. To reduce inflammation, he recommended a nasal steroid spray. He also recommended dietary changes including elimination of sugary foods, which can cause inflammation and which I definitely too much of. Result has been complete return to normal sleep without need for CPAP. Am hoping to ween off nasal spray soon. Anyway, it’s really concerning that my sleep doctor never even considered nasal inflammation or it’s remedies as a way to solve my problem. But not surprising. If he had, and it had worked, he would have lost a lifetime of revenue from selling me CPAP accessories. Sleep doctors are highly incented to conclude people need machines forever, and to treat a symptom rather than finding the root cause of the problem.

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