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Understanding sleep difficulties


While sleep disorders should be treated by a medical professional, this cheat sheet of common sleep problems can help you help your customers

alarm clock sleep sleep disorders

Retail sales associates know all too well that sleep complaints or difficulties often are what bring customers into a store for a new mattress. But what about those customers who suffer from actual sleep disorders? With approximately 70 million Americans experiencing sleep disorders, it is likely that some of your customers have sleep problems that might warrant a diagnosis and treatment from a health care provider.

While diagnosable sleep disorders need to be treated by a medical professional, it is useful for mattress retailers, RSAs and others who work in the sleep products industry to understand the various issues consumers face so they can build rapport with their customers and perhaps be able to separate general sleep difficulties from more serious issues.

Did you know there are more than 80 different diagnosable sleep disorders? Even most medical professionals don’t know all these conditions and their unique symptoms. However, below is a cheat sheet, so to speak, on three common sleep disorders that might stand between your customers and sound, restorative slumber.


Approximately 30% of adults in the United States suffer from symptoms of insomnia, which is considered the most common sleep disorder. It’s characterized by having trouble falling asleep, having difficulty remaining asleep or waking up earlier than necessary. It’s possible for a person to experience a combination of these symptoms. Although it can be hard to pinpoint the exact cause of insomnia, contributing factors can include stress, anxiety, an erratic sleep schedule or a change to the sleep environment. Outside influences, such as other health issues or medications, also may play a role.

In general, there are two types of insomnia, and each is distinguished by differing levels of intensity.

Insomnia types

  • Onset insomnia occurs when a person has trouble falling asleep but once sleep is achieved, it continues throughout the night uninterrupted.
  • Maintenance insomnia occurs when a person has trouble staying asleep during the night. Although falling asleep is not an issue, quality sleep is not achieved due to repeated periods of wakefulness.

Insomnia intensity levels

  • Acute insomnia lasts less than one month and can lead to drowsiness during the day, difficulty concentrating, and brain or physical fatigue.
  • Chronic insomnia continues for more than one month and may result in severe exhaustion that limits a person’s ability to participate in everyday activities.

While many people live with chronic insomnia for years, ongoing sleep deprivation can have a negative effect on overall health. Potential long-term effects include depression, anxiety and other mood disorders, and cardiovascular issues. In fact, the risk of cardiovascular disease is higher among people with diagnosed insomnia.

Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that is estimated to affect 22 million Americans. It occurs when a person briefly stops breathing during the night until the brain signals the body to awaken and restart breathing. Notable symptoms of sleep apnea include excessive daytime sleepiness and loud snoring. However, a sleep study is necessary to officially diagnose the condition.

While there are three types of sleep apnea and anyone is susceptible to developing the disorder, obstructive sleep apnea represents the vast majority of cases and is seen most often in overweight men age 40 and older. In obstructive sleep apnea, a sleeper’s soft palate falls into the throat, creating an airway blockage that prevents breathing. In extreme cases, this situation may happen more than 100 times per night, and because the body repeatedly rouses itself to ensure breathing continues, sleep repeatedly is disturbed.

Unfortunately, up to 80% of those with serious cases of obstructive sleep apnea remain undiagnosed. They may think they are simply light sleepers when the cause of their sleep disruption is quite serious. Treatment often includes the use of a continuous positive airway pressure machine, or CPAP machine, to facilitate regular breathing during sleep. Untreated obstructive sleep apnea is associated with increased likelihood of cardiovascular issues, such as heart failure and stroke; diabetes; and depression.

Restless legs syndrome

Restless legs syndrome is a prevalent yet lesser-known sleep disorder that affects approximately 10% of the U.S. population. Sufferers experience an uncomfortable feeling in their legs that results in the overwhelming desire to move their legs to alleviate their distress. Because symptoms often are amplified at night, the disorder may cause frequent sleep interruptions.

Although the cause of restless legs syndrome is unknown, there seems to be a genetic component—almost half of those diagnosed have someone else in their family with the condition. While the majority of cases are manageable, the disorder can result in depression, anxiety, drowsiness or difficulty concentrating. Medications have proved to be helpful in treating restless legs syndrome, and sufferers may see improvements from exercising, adopting a consistent sleep routine and minimizing the use of stimulants.

Responding to customers

Although it can be tempting to offer advice or theories on the causes of a sleep disorder when speaking with a customer, it’s essential to direct anyone seeking medical advice to a health professional. However, it might be helpful for you to be familiar with sleep disorders and their symptoms. It’s also important to note that healthy sleep hygiene suggestions, like keeping a consistent bedtime and creating a bedtime routine, help all of us but particularly those with sleep disorders. 

Rebecca Robbins HeadshotIn fact, the same sleep and mattress shopping tips you offer to everyday shoppers also will benefit those with sleep disorders—perhaps even more so. For people who experience sleep challenges, the establishment of sleep routines, the integration of sleep-promoting behaviors and the creation of a comfortable sleep environment can significantly improve the quality of their sleep and, therefore, their overall quality of life.

Dr. Rebecca Robbins is a postdoctoral fellow at the New York University School of Medicine in New York and co-author of “Sleep for Success!” with Dr. James B. Maas. In 2017, she partnered with the Beautyrest brand to educate consumers and the mattress industry about how sleep affects an individual’s performance during waking hours.


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