Insomnia vs Sleep Apnea - What’s the Difference?

Medically reviewed by Beth Holloway, RN, M. Ed,
2020-04-20

Some of us fall fast asleep the second we lie down in bed. For others, it’s not so easy. 

Many things lead to sleeplessness, but insomnia and sleep apnea are two of the most common disorders that keep you from getting the sleep you deserve. 

Sleep apnea and insomnia are both sleep problems, but these two disorders have important differences, and understanding them is the first step to taking control of your sleep. 

Insomnia vs. Sleep Apnea

Insomnia is the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, while sleep apnea is a condition that causes disrupted breathing during sleep. Read more below on how to distinguish the two.

What Is Insomnia?

No matter how many times you toss or turn, sleep is always another five minutes away. If that sounds like you, you may have insomnia.

Insomnia is a term for recurring sleeplessness that keeps your day from running smoothly. There are two ways this frustrating disorder presents itself. Insomnia may be acute (short-term), or it can be chronic (long-term). 

The occasional night of sleeplessness isn’t insomnia; but you might have experienced acute insomnia before. It is three nights or more per week of sleeplessness for up to three months. It tends to happen when you’re under stress – good or bad – or when you undergo serious trauma. Anything from excitement about your trip to Thailand to your friend’s sudden death can lead to acute insomnia.

When your insomnia lasts more than three months, your situation is chronic. Over time, these sleepless nights can have major consequences. One way to find your way back to better sleep is finding out what’s causing your insomnia in the first place.

Causes of Chronic Insomnia

Thankfully, acute insomnia typically resolves itself. Chronic insomnia is different – and doctors often divide it into two categories: primary or secondary. 

Sleeplessness without the contributing factors below is primary insomnia. Doctors don’t have clear answers about what causes it, but they do know that life changes and trauma can trigger primary insomnia

Secondary insomnia, on the other hand, is when another condition causes sleeplessness. This is the kind of insomnia most people have. Common causes include:

  • Chronic pain conditions such as endometriosis or arthritis

  • Problems with the thyroid gland

  • Gastroesophageal reflux

  • Menopause

Certain medications may cause insomnia as well.

What Are My Long-term Risks?

Insomnia does more than make you groggy. Sleeplessness disrupts your ability to concentrate. The consequences can be serious, and people with insomnia are at an increased risk of accidents. The cognitive impairments that come from insomnia can also lead to depression, anxiety, and performance issues on the job.

Treatment Options

For primary insomnia, behavioral therapists have a few suggestions. For starters, improve your sleeping environment and change your nightly habits. One suggestion? Leaving the bed when you can’t sleep, instead of lying there tossing and turning.

When it comes to secondary insomnia, the best way to resolve it is to address whatever triggered it in the first place. And no matter what kind of insomnia you have, cognitive behavioral therapy and relaxation techniques such as yoga may help as well. 

Take control by evaluating your insomnia today with our free quiz.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

There are two kinds of sleep apnea as well: central and obstructive. Central sleep apnea is when your body stops trying to breathe while sleeping. The more common kind of apnea is obstructive. Your body tries to breathe, but cannot.

When you have obstructive sleep apnea, your throat muscles block your airway as you sleep, reducing or stopping your airflow.  Snoring is a common symptom of sleep apnea, but you might also gasp for air or even stop breathing during the night.

To find out if this condition affects you, your doctor can provide a sleep study done in-home or at a facility. Some people can even find out about their sleep apnea thanks to their partners who hear them snore, struggle to breathe, or gasp in the night.

Causes of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea can happen to anyone at any age, but there are common risk factors, such as a family history of the condition. Other risk factors include:

What Are My Long-term Risks?

Like insomnia, you may face sleeplessness night after night. And because your sleep isn’t restful, you are at an increased risk of depression

There is an increased risk of mental health problems with sleep apnea, but physical conditions can arise as well. Because your body isn’t getting the oxygen it needs, sleep apnea leads to higher risks of cancer, diabetes, and dementia

Sleep Apnea Treatment Options

Sleep apnea may be frightening, but there are things you can do to treat it, like using a CPAP machine or a specialized mouthguard

Each has its own pros and cons. While the CPAP machine is safe and effective, it is noisy and inconvenient. The mouthguard, on the other hand, is easy to use but can cause pain

There’s Hope

Having sleep apnea or insomnia can feel frustrating, but Goodpath can help with sleep troubles. Take our in-depth, medically reviewed sleep assessment and find out how you can start getting better sleep tonight.