Insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders and is characterized by difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. This overview defines insomnia and details the causes, symptoms and treatment options for this sleep disorder.
Insomnia refers to trouble falling or staying asleep. It can affect someone for a short time, such as a few nights or weeks. In other cases, the sleep disorder is chronic and can last for months or years.
There are a few main types including primary and secondary. The sleep disorder is considered primary (or idiopathic insomnia) when it is not caused by or associated with a medical condition, psychiatric problem or medication. Secondary insomnia, on the other hand, is due to a medical condition, such as COPD or chronic pain, that is interfering with sleep.1
"Insomnia is defined as difficulty falling or staying asleep and can be short-lived or long-term"
In some instances, the cause of difficulty falling asleep cannot always be easily identified. But in other cases, it might be apparent what is causing problems falling or staying asleep. Below are a few common causes.
Learn more about insomnia causes.
It can affect anyone at any time in their life. But certain factors may increase your risk. For example, women are more likely than men to develop the sleep disorder.2
According to the Mayo Clinic, people over the age of 60 are also at a higher risk, possibly due to changes in sleep patterns as you age. Having an irregular sleep schedule is also a risk factor. For instance, if you go to bed at all different times or work different shifts, which disrupts your regular sleep hours, it can increase your chance of developing the sleep disorder.
The severity of symptoms may also vary. The sleep disorder can have an accumulative effect, which means the longer it goes on, the more severe symptoms may be. For instance, not getting a good night’s rest may leave you a little tired the next day. But if you don’t sleep well for a week or a month, you might feel the effects of sleep deprivation more severely.3
The treatment may depend on the cause. For example, treating an underlying medical condition may also cure it. Also, if a certain medication is to blame, switching to a different drug may help.
In other cases, over the counter or prescription medication may help treat it, especially in the short-term.4 Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) can also help some people overcome insomnia by decreasing anxiety and targeting the thoughts that cause poor sleep.
In certain instances, self-help strategies may be all it takes to treat the sleep disorder. Following these non-medication-based actions is good first step to dealing with sleep problems.
If these actions don't work, talk to your doctor as you may have issues that need to be addressed.
Insomnia is a condition characterized by habitually having trouble going to sleep or staying asleep.
This doesn’t mean that if you have a busy social life and choose not to make sleep a priority, you have insomnia. Insomnia is present when you give yourself the opportunity to sleep the recommended 7-8 hours per night, and have a hard time falling or staying asleep during this time.
Insomnia is not often a health condition on its own, but many times secondary to another condition, such as sleep apnea, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), depression, anxiety, etc.
Here are important questions to ask yourself that may be an indicator of whether or not you have insomnia:
If you answered “yes” to these questions, you might have insomnia.
It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor to be diagnosed and treated for insomnia. Your doctor may perform a physical exam and further testing.
Your doctor may have you keep a sleep diary to track your sleep patterns. This is usually done for at least a couple weeks. Things you’ll track in your sleep diary include:
Your doctor may want you to have a sleep test known as a polysomnogram. This test is usually performed overnight in a hospital or sleep clinic and monitors brain activity, body movements, breathing, and blood-oxygen levels.
Other ways to monitor how much and how well you’re sleeping is by using technology.
Sleep trackers can be wearable or not wearable, and there are several options now on the market. They can include smartwatches, smartphone sleep apps, devices to keep at the bedside, or devices to wear during sleep.
Actigraphy is used to monitor your cycles of rest and activity. It’s a small sensor, about the size of a small watch, and is worn on the wrist for about a week or more.
Technology can be a great starting point to get a general idea of how well you’re sleeping, but if you find that you may have insomnia, talk to your physician to get the proper diagnosis and treatment.
Keeping a sleep diary could be greatly beneficial in the identification and diagnosis of insomnia.
Sometimes, it is necessary to have sleep studies performed to determine if the sleep disorder and frequent awakenings throughout the night is caused by sleep apnea, as this sleep disorder is a common symptom of that condition.
Treatment for acute insomnia is relatively straightforward, and oftentimes does not require anything extensive. Usually, mild insomnia can be treated with practicing better sleep hygiene (going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, for example). If difficulty falling asleep is interrupting daytime functioning, then sleeping pills and sleep aids like melatonin are sometimes prescribed. New therapies that are being studied include the use of CBD for sleep.
Chronic insomnia or secondary insomnia is a little more difficult to treat, as the provider will first need to discover and treat the underlying cause. For the most part, if the primary problem is under control, then the symptoms will resolve on its own; however, if insomnia continues after the primary conditions are treated, then behavioral techniques are then employed, which can include anything from lifestyle changes to learning pre-bedtime meditation techniques.
© 2021 American Sleep Association.