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Cancer Health Center

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Sleep Disorders (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Management

Management of sleep disturbances should focus on treatment of problems with falling asleep, staying asleep, or early morning awakenings. Other areas to manage include symptoms from cancer and its treatment, and the identification and management of environmental and psychological factors. When sleep disturbances are caused by symptoms of cancer or treatment, measures that control or alleviate symptoms are often the key to resolving sleep disturbances. Management of sleep disturbances combines nonpharmacologic and pharmacologic approaches individualized for the patient.

Nonpharmacologic Management of Sleep Disturbances

Several large, randomized trials and meta-analyses provide the evidence base for the efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for insomnia (CBT-I).[1,2,3] Almost all of these trials have been in populations of patients without cancer. Components of CBT-I include the following:

  • Cognitive restructuring.
  • Behavioral strategies.
  • Relaxation.
  • Basic sleep hygiene education.

Cognitive strategies include restructuring negative thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes related to sleep and preventing excessive monitoring or worrying about getting enough sleep.[1] Behavioral strategies include stimulus control and sleep restriction. Both of these strategies seek to limit time spent in bed that does not involve sleeping.[1,4,5]

Relaxation therapy can be used to achieve both behavioral and cognitive outcomes, particularly when it is combined with imagery. Educational objectives around sleep hygiene are also used to treat insomnia and include content on the following:[4]

  • Sleeping and waking up at regular times.
  • Relaxing before bedtime.
  • Creating a dark, comfortable sleep environment.
  • Avoiding watching television or working in the bedroom.
  • Getting ample daylight during nonsleep hours.
  • Avoiding naps.
  • Limiting caffeine.
  • Getting regular exercise but no closer than 3 hours before bedtime.

Practice guidelines from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine clearly state that multicomponent therapy is recommended over single therapies. Because of insufficient evidence about its efficacy, sleep hygiene education should not be recommended as a single-modality management approach; other reviews state that sleep hygiene by itself is not effective.[2,6] Information about sleep hygiene, although not sufficient alone to combat sleep disturbances, should be included as a foundation of education related to sleep issues.

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