Sleep and the Night Shift

Could you have shift work sleep disorder?

From the WebMD Archives


Dennis Nicholson, MD, medical director of the Pomona Valley Hospital Sleep Disorders Center in Claremont, Calif., and a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, estimates that patients with shift work sleep disorder make up 5% to 10% of his practice.

The problem affects various age groups, but older workers have the toughest time coping, he says. "As people get older, they sometimes have medical conditions that make it more and more difficult for them to stay in shift work. Generally, when I see patients above 50 doing shift work, I find that they have a devil of a time."

To treat shift work disorder, doctors usually start with improving sleep hygiene with the nine tips covered at the beginning of this article. Using blackout curtains and keeping a regular sleep-wake schedule can help your body adjust to sleeping during the day.

If those behavioral changes don’t help, doctors can prescribe medications to help people stay alert when they need to be awake and help shift workers fall asleep.

Stimulant medications such as Nuvigil and Provigil can relieve sleepiness when people need to be awake. These drugs are approved for the treatment of excessive sleepiness related to shift work disorder, among other conditions.

Sleep aids such as Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata may be prescribed to help with falling asleep. Certain antidepressants and benzodiazepines may also be used to help with sleep.

Doctors such as Fleming recommend that shift workers try proper sleep hygiene first. If that doesn’t work, talk to the doctor about medications or a referral to a sleep lab.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on November 29, 2011



Wesley Elon Fleming, MD, clinical assistant professor, Loma Linda University; director, Sleep Center Orange County, California.

Dennis Nicholson, MD, medical director, Pomona Valley Hospital Sleep Disorders Center. 

Czeisler, C. New England Journal of Medicine, Aug. 4, 2005; vol 353: pp 476-486.

Cleveland Clinic: "Shift Work Sleep Disorder."

Basner, R.C. New England Journal of Medicine, Aug. 4, 2005; vol 353: pp 519-521.

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