What is Sleep Medicine?

by | Jan 26, 2018 | Sleep Disorder, Sleep Medicine

What do someone who snores, someone that has difficulty falling or staying asleep, someone who is consistently exhausted during the day, or someone that has frequent and disturbing nightmares all have in common? They may all have a sleep disorder, and would probably benefit from consulting a doctor who specializes in sleep medicine. Sleep medicine specialists have completed special training and have taken boards (tests) that certify their expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders. As the name suggests, Sleep Medicine Specialists focus on sleep problems and sleep disorders. Good health is not only reliant upon getting an adequate amount of sleep, but also the quality of sleep. Sleep disorders can significantly increase the risk for accidents, headaches, poor concentration, work and school problems, depression and anxiety, weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. Knowing what disorders can be treated by a sleep medicine specialist will help you understand how sleep medicine can help you.

Sleep Disorders Diagnosed and Treated by Sleep Medicine Specialists

There is a wide range of sleep disorders that can be treated by sleep medicine specialists, ranging from breathing problems during sleep, to abnormal activity during sleep, to problems going to sleep and staying asleep, to excessive sleepiness during the day. He or she will begin by carefully reviewing your health history, with a major focus on your sleep history, and conducting a thorough examination. Diagnosis may require a sleep study (where you will be observed and closely monitored while you are sleeping).

Sleep Apnea

When someone has sleep apnea, they experience episodes where they may completely stop breathing frequently during the night, either from a blocked airway, or the brain not sending the right signals to breathe. The outward symptoms are often witnessed by their family or significant others, because they snore or sound like they are choking or gasping for air. When apnea happens, the level of oxygen in the blood drops, causing abrupt awakening, and often creates restless and poor-quality sleep. Consequently, you might feel tired and sleepy during the day, as well as be irritable, have morning headaches, and experience a decreased sexual drive.

Sleep apnea not only disturbs sleep, but also causes severe medical problems including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and depression. While sleep apnea can run in families, it is also caused by a large neck size, obesity, and age. Sleep Apnea among children is almost always due to large tonsils and adenoids. If this is the case, weight loss will help the problem. Once diagnosed during a sleep study, your sleep medicine specialist can offer other medical treatments including a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine or a specialized mouth guard, both to be worn during the night.

Primary Insomnia 

If you complain that you don’t sleep well, you might have primary insomnia. This disorder is defined as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or waking up frequently during the night or too early in the morning, for at least two weeks. Primary insomnia can have any of a number of causes, including anxiety, depression, hormonal imbalances (like menopause), alcohol use, caffeine or the use of certain medications. This can have serious health consequences because when you sleep, your body repairs and restores itself. The results of inadequate sleep patterns include poor work performance, poor decision-making, decreased alertness, irritability, and tiredness during the day.

Chronic insomnia, or experiencing primary insomnia for 3 months or more can cause even more serious health problems including memory and concentration problems, impulsiveness or aggression, lack of energy, accidents, delusions and even hallucinations. Your sleep medicine specialist can help you identify factors that may be contributing to your insomnia and will be able to recommend remedies to help you get a good night’s sleep on a consistent basis.


People with narcolepsy often have disrupted sleep during the night, but more characteristically have extreme sleepiness at unconventional times during the day. This overwhelming feeling of tiredness, called sleep attacks, brings on uncontrollable urges to sleep at inopportune times. You may even fall asleep in the middle of a conversation.

The reason this disorder can be so dangerous is because the attacks can even occur while eating or driving. Thus, accidents and choking become a serious concern. Just like others who experience severe sleep deprivation, people with narcolepsy are also at risk of experiencing memory problems, as well as hallucinations, feeling like they are being paralyzed while they are falling asleep (sleep paralysis), or cataplexy – which is the sudden loss of muscle tone. Your sleep medicine specialist can recommend lifestyle changes that may improve your sleep patterns, and if necessary, medications to help you stay awake during the day.

Restless Leg Syndrome

Have you ever felt the unexplainable and generally bizarre need to move your legs at night, making it difficult to fall asleep? People with restless leg syndrome describe the sensations in their legs as burning, crawling, throbbing, or itching, which are relieved by getting up and walking. Even if the length of sleep is not shortened by the symptoms of restless legs, the quality of sleep can be very poor. Because of this, these people experience the same effects as those who are sleep deprived, with depression or anxiety being very common.  The majority of people with RLS will experience limb movement even while asleep, causing sleep fragmentation.

Your sleep medicine specialist will help you determine if anything you are doing, such as the intake of alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine, is causing your symptoms. Initial treatment will probably include avoiding any substances that can be causal to or exacerbate symptoms, as well as modifying some of your nighttime activities and adding stretching to your nightly routine. Blood tests may be done to test iron levels and other concerns, and medication may be able to help RLS. 

There are many other sleep disorders that can be addressed by your sleep medicine specialist, such as sleepwalking, sleep terrors, nightmares, bedwetting, or acting out your dreams in sleep. The best thing to do if you are experiencing trouble sleeping, if you are excessively sleepy during the day, or if your partner complains that you are snoring or gasping at night, is to consult a sleep medicine specialist.

Dr. Jeannine Gingras is a board-certified sleep medicine specialist, with years of experience in both patient care and pioneering research in the field of sleep medicine. Her practice specializes in treating sleep related disorders and related conditions for people of all ages, from infants to elders. If you have any more questions regarding sleep disorders or how a sleep medicine specialist can help you, please call us at Gingras Sleep Medicine in Charlotte and Concord, North Carolina at (704) 944-0562.  You can also request an appointment online.