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Frequently Asked Questions About Insomnia

  • What is insomnia?
  • Answer:

    Every person needs a different amount of sleep; some people get by with less sleep than others, satisfied with their functioning the next day.

    With insomnia, your sleep feels inadequate or of poor quality. You don’t feel refreshed in the morning. You may have had difficulty falling asleep. Or you woke up frequently during the night, with difficulty returning to sleep. You might wake up too early in the morning. You suffer the next day -- you’re tired, have little energy, can’t concentrate, and you’re irritable.

    Insomnia can be classified as transient (short-term), intermittent (on and off), and chronic (long-lasting). Insomnia lasting from a single night to a few weeks is referred to as transient. If episodes of transient insomnia occur from time to time, the insomnia is said to be intermittent.

    Insomnia is chronic if it occurs on most nights and lasts a month or more.

  • What causes insomnia?
  • Answer:

    You are more likely to develop insomnia if you are over age 60, if you are female, and if you have a history of depression. If you also have stress, anxiety, chronic medical conditions (such as arthritis or heart failure), or use certain medications, you are at increased risk for insomnia.

    Temporary Insomnia

    Transient and intermittent insomnia generally can occur if you have:

    • Periods of excess stress in your life
    • Noisy surroundings (like outside street noise)
    • Extreme temperatures (too hot or cold in the bedroom)
    • Change of environment (hotel rooms)
    • Sleep/wake schedule problems (jet lag or work shifts)
    • Medication side effects

    Chronic Insomnia

    Chronic insomnia is a more complex sleep disorder and often involves several factors, like physical or mental disorders. Depression is one of the most common causes of chronic insomnia. Arthritis, kidney disease, heart failure, asthma, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, Parkinson's disease, and hyperthyroidism can also cause insomnia.

    Lifestyle factors can trigger insomnia, too. If these factors don’t change, they can also prolong the insomnia cycle. They include:

    • Too much caffeine
    • Drinking alcohol before bedtime
    • Smoking cigarettes before bedtime
    • Excessive napping in the afternoon or evening
    • Irregular or continually disrupted sleep/wake schedules
    • Expecting to have difficulty sleeping and worrying about it

  • How is insomnia diagnosed?
  • Answer:

    If you have insomnia, your doctor will ask questions about your medical history and sleep history. You may need to keep a sleep diary. Or the doctor may interview your bed partner concerning the quantity and quality of your sleep.

    Specialized sleep studies (a night spent in a laboratory) may be necessary -- but only if there is suspicion of a medical problem like sleep apnea or narcolepsy.

  • How is insomnia treated?
  • Answer:

    Temporary insomnia may not require treatment, because episodes last only a few days at a time. For example, if insomnia is due to a temporary change in the sleep/wake schedule, as with jet lag, the person's biological clock will often get back to normal on its own.

    Some people with temporary insomnia may benefit from short-acting sleeping pills to improve sleep and next-day alertness. As with all drugs, there are potential side effects. The use of over-the-counter sleeping pills is not usually recommended for the treatment of insomnia.

    Treatment for chronic insomnia consists of:

    • Treating underlying medical or psychological problems (like sleep apnea or depression)
    • Stopping behaviors that worsen insomnia (like drinking too much coffee or taking naps)
    • Possibly using sleeping pills (although the long-term use of sleeping pills for chronic insomnia is controversial)
    • Trying behavioral techniques to improve sleep, such as relaxation therapy (to help your mind and muscles relax), sleep restriction therapy (restricting time spent in bed), and reconditioning (learning to associate the bed and bedtime with sleep)

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on October 08, 2014

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