Insomnia

(Sleeplessness)

Definition

Insomnia is a sleep disorder. It may make it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep, or get restful sleep. It may be:

  • Short-term (acute)—lasts a few days to a few weeks
  • Long-term (chronic)—lasts more than 4 weeks

Causes

Insomnia happens for many reasons. Short-term insomnia is often caused by:

  • A life crisis or stress
  • Noise
  • A room that is too hot or too cold
  • Changes in surroundings
  • Jet lag or other sleep-wake problems

The cause of long-term insomnia is not always clear. It can be caused by:

Both types of insomnia can be due to:

  • Behaviors such as:
    • Using caffeine, alcohol, or other substances
    • Smoking
    • Sleeping on an irregular schedule—such as with shift work
    • Problems coping with stress
    • Napping too much in the afternoon or evening
  • Certain medicines, such as:
    • Antidepressants, stimulants, and pain relievers
    • Steroid hormones, decongestants, and certain asthma medicines

Risk Factors

Insomnia is more common in women at and after menopause. It is also common in adults 50 years of age or older.

The risk is higher for those with any problems listed above.

Symptoms

Insomnia may cause:

  • Problems falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Waking up too early
  • Not feeling refreshed after sleep
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Uneasiness and problems thinking

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam may be done. The doctor will ask about your sleep, habits, schedule, and medicines.

If the cause is not clear, a sleep study may be done. This is done in a special lab. A technician will look at brain activity, breathing, and movement as you sleep.

Treatment

The goal is to improve sleep. This may be done by treating underlying problems or behaviors. Other options are:

  • Sleep medicines—usually for a short time
  • Relaxation techniques and physical activity—to ease stress
  • Herbs or melatonin
  • Sleep restriction—a program that limits time in bed to sleeping time only
  • Reconditioning—using the bed only for sleep and sex
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy—talk therapy with a mental health counselor

Prevention

To reduce the risk of insomnia:

  • Do regular physical activity.
  • Get treatment for health problems.
  • Do not use substances that disrupt sleep.
  • Learn and use good sleep practices.

RESOURCES:

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov
National Sleep Foundation
http://www.sleepfoundation.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Sleep Society
https://css-scs.ca

References:

Insomnia. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: https://familydoctor.org/condition/insomnia. Accessed February 25, 2021.
Insomnia. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/insomnia. Accessed February 25, 2021.
Insomnia in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/insomnia-in-adults. Accessed February 25, 2021.
Patel D, Steinberg J, Patel P. Insomnia in the elderly: a review. J Clin Sleep Med. 2018;14(6):1017-1024.
Last reviewed January 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Marcin Chwistek, MD
Last Updated: 2/25/2021

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