Insomnia vs. Sleep Apnea: What’s the Difference?

October 3, 2017

Disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea that interfere with our ability to sleep are frustrating to deal with, to treat, and to diagnose. The problem intensifies even further when sleep apnea symptoms include insomnia, and insomnia symptoms include sleep apnea. When these two different sleeping disorders blur the lines, it can be frustrating to try and pinpoint what the problem behind your inconsistent sleep patterns truly is.

Today, we’re breaking down the differences between these two sleep disorders and giving you some tips on how you can manage them.


Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder caused by a blockage in your airway during sleep which restricts or blocks airflow, which then repeatedly interrupts your breathing during sleep.

Classically paired with snoring, night waking, going to the bathroom during the night, waking up with a sore throat, morning headaches, and excessive daytime sleepiness, it can result in signs of sleep deprivation as well.

Sleep apnea is comorbid (linked to other medical issues) and can cause high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, depression, and insomnia and those medical conditions can all be symptoms of sleep apnea – which is what makes it tricky. For women, sleep apnea can look very different than it does for men, with restless leg syndrome, fatigue, anxiety, palpitations, and nightmares joining the ranks of symptoms.


Defined as difficulty falling or staying asleep, insomnia symptoms include fatigue, low energy, difficulty concentrating, mood disturbances, and decreased work performance (basically the outcome of sleep deprivation).

Often, people with insomnia wake up too early and can’t get back to sleep. Acute insomnia is the type that occurs briefly while chronic insomnia is the kind that happens at least three nights a week for a least three months. Like sleep apnea, insomnia is also comorbid and comes in tandem with psychiatric disorders (e.g. depression, anxiety, PTSD), medical disorders (e.g. congestive heart failure, GERD, and diabetes), as well as chronic pain issues (e.g. migraine, arthritis, fibromyalgia), neurological disorders (e.g. dementia, Parkinson’s, Tourette’s), circadian rhythm disorders, and obstructive sleep apnea. Plus, medications can cause insomnia, too.


We all know when we have sleep difficulties, but understanding why is the real challenge. The biggest difference between sleep apnea and insomnia is that there’s a definitive way to diagnose and treat sleep apnea whereas insomnia is trickier, because it often has underlying causes, which makes a clear-cut treatment nearly impossible. But, diagnosing any sleep disorder begins with a sleep study.


Treating and managing sleep apnea is straightforward: CPAP therapy. While many people try home remedies that might lessen the severity of sleep apnea, these home remedies will never cure the disorder.

CPAP therapy is a doctor’s recommended treatment and a surefire way to help you get more, and better sleep when you have sleep apnea.

Unlike sleep apnea, insomnia doesn’t have one definitive treatment. More often than not, doctors prescribe sleeping pills, but treatments can include Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), stimulus control, or alternative medicine. Often, it’s an arduous journey to figure out what’s causing the insomnia to treat it effectively – and sometimes it’s sleep apnea.

The best first step is to rule out or diagnose sleep apnea, so if you’re having difficulty sleeping and can’t figure out why, take our sleep quiz to see if you’re at risk for sleep apnea.

Feeling Sleepy? You may be at risk for sleep apnea. Take the quiz and find out.
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