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What Is Insomnia?

Overview

Insomnia is a sleep disorder. Individuals who suffer from insomnia find it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, or both. They don’t feel refreshed when they wake up from sleeping. This can lead to fatigue and other symptoms. Insomnia can be diagnosed as short-term, acute, or long-term, also referred to as chronic.

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Risk Factors

Risk factors for insomnia

Insomnia can occur at any age, and is more likely to affect women than men. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, people with certain risk factors are more likely to have insomnia. These risk factors include:

  • high levels of stress
  • emotional disorders, such as depression or distress, related to a traumatic life event
  • lower income
  • traveling to different time zones
  • certain medical conditions
  • sedentary lifestyle
  • changes in work hours or night shifts
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Causes

Causes of insomnia

Acute insomnia

Acute insomnia is typically caused by stress or an upsetting event. It can last for days, or even weeks.

Chronic insomnia

Chronic insomnia occurs three times a week for three months or more. This type of insomnia is often secondary to another problem or a combination of problems, such as:

  • medical conditions
  • psychological issues
  • substance abuse

Primary insomnia may be triggered by life changes, such as an ever-evolving work schedule.

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Symptoms

Symptoms of insomnia

People who experience insomnia usually report at least one of these symptoms:

  • waking too early in the morning
  • unrefreshing sleep
  • trouble falling or staying asleep

These symptoms of insomnia can lead to other symptoms, such as fatigue, mood changes, and difficulty concentrating on tasks during the day.

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Diagnosing

Diagnosing insomnia

Your doctor will ask questions about your:

  • medical conditions
  • social environment
  • psychological/emotional conditions
  • sleep history

This will provide information that can help find underlying causes of sleep problems. You might be asked to:

  • keep a sleep log
  • recording when you fall asleep
  • note whether you woke up repeatedly
  • report what time you wake up each day

A sleep log will give your doctor a picture of your sleep patterns. The doctor may also order medical tests or blood work to rule out medical problems that can interfere with your sleep.

Sometimes a sleep study is recommended. For this, you’ll stay overnight at a sleep center. Electrodes will be placed on your body, which will record brainwaves and sleep cycles. The neuroelectrical and physiological information from this type of study provides your doctor with potentially important diagnostic information about your sleep issues.

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Treatment

Treatment of insomnia

There are both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical treatments for insomnia. Your doctor can talk to you about what treatments might be appropriate for you. You may need to try a number of different treatments before find the one that is the most effective for you.

Sleep hygiene training may be recommended. Sometimes, behaviors that interfere with sleep are causing insomnia. Sleep hygiene training can help you change some of these disruptive behaviors, such as:

  • Avoiding caffeinated beverages near bedtime.
  • Avoiding exercise near bedtime.
  • Minimizing time spent on your bed when you’re not specifically intending to sleep, such as watching TV or surfing the web on your cell phone.

If there is an underlying psychological or medical disorder contributing to your insomnia, getting appropriate treatment for it can alleviate sleep difficulties.

Sometimes, medications are used to treat insomnia. An example of an over the counter medication that can be used for sleep is an antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Medications like this can have side effects, so it’s important to talk to a doctor before starting yourself on an over-the-counter medication for insomnia.

Talk with your doctor before using any of the following to treat your insomnia:

  • drug
  • medicine
  • supplement

There might be dangerous side effects or drug interactions. Not every “sleep aid” drug is appropriate for everyone. Many cases of insomnia can be much more effectively managed by lifestyle changes or other remedies.

Insomnia isn’t just a nuisance or a small inconvenience. It’s a real sleep disorder, and it can be treated. If you think you have insomnia, talk to your doctor. By exploring possible causes, you can get the appropriate and safe treatment you need.

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