Trouble signs: concentration problems, mood changes, daytime fatigue.

Trouble signs: concentration problems, mood changes, daytime fatigue.(ROB CHATTERSON/CORBIS)

Chronic sleep disorders can be the result of a specific event or health condition, or they can surface for no apparent reason. And when a person is not sleeping well, just a few rough days can trigger a downward spiral.

Recognize that your problem is real
"No matter what is bothering you—whether it's difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, snoring, restless legs, fatigue and exhaustion during the day—these conditions are not normal; they're not just something you should have to live with," says Gary Zammit, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Institute in New York City.

Patients should ask themselves these questions, Zammit says, to determine whether they should see a doctor about their sleep issues.

  • Am I experiencing performance or concentration problems during the day?
  • Have my mood and social capabilities suffered?
  • Do I feel refreshed and rested most mornings, or am I fatigued and not looking forward to starting the day?

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Yet less than half the people who have insomnia will talk to their doctors about the problem, found a 2005 National Sleep Foundation poll and 70% say that their doctor has never asked them about their sleep. People with other, harder-to-diagnose disorders might not even realize there is anything wrong with the way they sleep.

Get help sooner, not later
There's a fine line between occasional sleep problems and a full-blown disorder, so Zammit looks at every patient on a case-by-case basis.

"You don't have to wait until the sleep disorder destroys your life before you get help," he says. "I treated one patient who traveled for business once a month. Whenever he stayed in a hotel room, he couldn't sleep a wink, and then he'd be a wreck in front of his bosses the next day. This only happened under these occasional, very specific circumstances, but it still caused him significant distress and it affected his quality of life. That's how we decide if someone truly has a problem and can use help."

You don't have to wait until a sleep disorder destroys your life before you get help.

—Gary Zammit, PhD, Sleep Specialist

It's important to see a doctor if you suspect any type of chronic sleep disturbance. Besides disrupting your schedule, they may carry serious long-term health risks—including depression, substance abuse, high blood pressure, and heart disease. (Occasionally, sleep disturbances can signal an even more immediate health problem. Read this emergency checklist for warning signs.) With lifestyle changes, therapy, or medications, sleep disorders are largely manageable. The right treatment can improve both your nights and your days.