In the United States alone, long-term sleep disorders plague approximately 40 million individuals a year, while occasional sleep issues impact half that number — about 20 million Americans per year.
However, this is nothing new. Sleep apnea, insomnia, and a number of other disorders have affected the sleep patterns of Americans for centuries, with the first notable mention of such problems coming forth in the 1600s.
With that being said, Sleep Medicine has only very recently become a recognized medical specialty, though numerous doctors have noted the importance of getting adequate sleep since Biblical times. Let us review a brief history of sleep disorders and the development of their treatments.
Although this disorder was first discovered by Oxford physician Thomas Willis in the 1600s, narcolepsy did not receive its name, nor the attention of medical researchers, until well into the 19th century.
In 1880, the French Dr. Gélineau coined the term narcolepsy (translated from French as “sleep attacks”) and recognized it as a clinical disorder. Medical research has been conducted consistently over the last century or so, and while no cure has been found for narcolepsy, there is a broad range of treatments that are available to those with the disorder — including natural remedies, improving one’s sleep habits, seeking light therapy, and so on.
While there is no longstanding history of insomnia research as there was with narcolepsy, this disorder, whose name directly translates to “want of sleep” from Latin, has impacted far more people throughout the years, as our ancestors spoke of struggling with sleep in numerous historical texts.
Insomnia is characterized by the inability to fall and/or remain asleep for days, weeks, or even months on end. Modern research has linked the disorder with acute or chronic stress, anxiety, substance abuse, aging, and depression.
In spite of these conclusions, it has been difficult to nail down any surefire treatments for insomnia — other than the usual self-care, cognitive behavioral therapy, and sedatives, that is. Therefore, it is always best that an individual suffering from insomnia seeks advice from a medical professional before deciding on a course of treatment.
This particular disorder bears more of a threat than the inability to control one’s sleep patterns. Instead, Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is a potentially lethal sleep disorder in which breathing consistently stops and starts during sleep.
The common cycle of this disorder begins with loud and chronic snoring followed by long pauses in breathing, then choking or gasping for air as a result. This leaves the affected individual feeling groggy and disoriented the next morning — as if they hardly got any sleep at all.
While continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) devices are often employed to provide sufferers relief from their symptoms, they are often ineffective and lead to nasal congestion, difficulty breathing through one’s nose, headache and/or ear pressure, or even air being pumped into the stomach.
Therefore, specialists often suggest taking a more natural approach to conquering OSA, whether by losing weight, reducing alcohol consumption, or sleeping on one’s side. Additionally, patients can seek a tonsillectomy or adenoid removal in order to open up their obstructed airways and facilitate healthy airflow.
While these and other developments within the sleep medicine field have been both helpful and impressive thus far, it will be intriguing to see how treatment methods will continue to evolve, especially as the Western world adopts more advanced medical technologies.