Insomnia (in-SOM-ne-ah) is a common sleep disorder. People who have insomnia have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or both. As a result, they may get too little sleep or have poor-quality sleep. They may not feel refreshed when they wake up.
Insomnia can be acute (short-term) or chronic (ongoing). Acute insomnia is common and often is brought on by situations such as stress at work, family pressures, or a traumatic event. Acute insomnia lasts for days or weeks.
Chronic insomnia lasts for a month or longer. Most cases of chronic insomnia are secondary, which means they are the symptom or side effect of some other problem. Certain medical conditions, medicines, sleep disorders, and substances can cause secondary insomnia.
In contrast, primary insomnia isn’t due to medical problems, medicines, or other substances. It is its own distinct disorder, and its cause isn’t well understood. Many life changes can trigger primary insomnia, including long-lasting stress and emotional upset.
Insomnia can cause daytime sleepiness and a lack of energy. It also can make you feel anxious, depressed, or irritable. You may have trouble focusing on tasks, paying attention, learning, and remembering. These problems can prevent you from doing your best at work or school.
Insomnia also can cause other serious problems. For example, you may feel drowsy while driving, which could lead to an accident.
Treating the underlying cause of secondary insomnia may resolve or improve the sleep problem, especially if you can correct the problem soon after it starts. For example, if caffeine is causing your insomnia, stopping or limiting your intake of the substance might make the insomnia go away.
Lifestyle changes, including better sleep habits, often help relieve acute insomnia. For chronic insomnia, your doctor may recommend medicines or cognitive-behavioral therapy.
What are the symptoms of insomnia?
The main symptom of insomnia is trouble falling or staying asleep, which leads to lack of sleep. If you have insomnia, you may:
- Lie awake for a long time before you fall asleep
- Sleep for only short periods
- Be awake for much of the night
- Feel as if you haven’t slept at all
- Wake up too early
The lack of sleep can cause other symptoms. You may wake up feeling tired or not well-rested, and you may feel tired during the day. You also may have trouble focusing on tasks. Insomnia can cause you to feel anxious, depressed, or irritable.
Insomnia also can affect your daily activities and cause serious problems. For example, you may feel drowsy while driving. Driver sleepiness (not related to alcohol) is responsible for almost 20 percent of all serious car crash injuries. Research also shows that insomnia raises older women’s risk of falling.
If insomnia is affecting your daily activities, talk with your doctor. Treatment may help you avoid symptoms and problems related to the disorder. Also, poor sleep may be a sign of other health problems. Finding and treating those problems could improve your overall health and sleep.
What are the causes of insomnia?
Secondary insomnia is the symptom or side effect of another problem. This type of insomnia often is a symptom of an emotional, neurological, or other medical or sleep disorder.
Emotional disorders that can cause insomnia include depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease are examples of neurological disorders that can cause insomnia.
Many other disorders or factors also can cause insomnia, such as:
- Conditions that cause chronic (ongoing) pain, such as arthritis and headache disorders
- Conditions that make it hard to breathe, such as asthma and heart failure
- An overactive thyroid
- Gastrointestinal disorders, such as heartburn
- Sleep disorders, such as restless legs syndrome and sleep-related breathing problems
- Menopause and hot flashes
Secondary insomnia also can be a side effect of some medicines. For example, certain asthma medicines, such as theophylline, and some allergy and cold medicines can cause insomnia. Beta blockers also can cause the condition. These medicines are used to treat heart conditions.
Commonly used substances also can cause insomnia. Examples include caffeine and other stimulants, tobacco and other nicotine products, and alcohol and other sedatives.
Primary insomnia isn’t a symptom or side effect of another medical condition. It is its own distinct disorder, and its cause isn’t well understood. Primary insomnia usually lasts for at least 1 month.
Many life changes can trigger primary insomnia. It may be due to major or long-lasting stress or emotional upset. Travel or other factors, such as work schedules that disrupt your sleep routine, also may trigger primary insomnia.
Even if these issues are resolved, the insomnia may not go away. Trouble sleeping can persist because of habits formed to deal with the lack of sleep. These habits might include taking naps, worrying about sleep, and going to bed early.
Researchers continue to try to find out whether some people are born with an increased risk for primary insomnia.
What are the risk factors for insomnia?
Insomnia is a common disorder. It affects women more often than men. The disorder can occur at any age. However, older adults are more likely to have insomnia than younger people.
People who might be at increased risk for insomnia include those who:
- Have a lot of stress.
- Are depressed or have other emotional distress, such as divorce or death of a spouse.
- Have lower incomes.
- Work at night or have frequent major shifts in their work hours.
- Travel long distances with time changes.
- Have certain medical conditions or sleep disorders that can disrupt sleep.
- Have an inactive lifestyle.
Young and middle-aged African Americans also might be at increased risk for insomnia. Research shows that, compared with Caucasian Americans, it takes African Americans longer to fall asleep. They also have lighter sleep, don’t sleep as well, and take more naps. Sleep-related breathing problems also are more common among African Americans.
Source: Adapted from the US National Library of Medicine