Insomnia is a sleep disorder that is characterized by difficulty falling and/or staying asleep. People with insomnia have one or more of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Waking up often during the night and having trouble going back to sleep
- Waking up too early in the morning
- Feeling tired upon waking
Insomnia is not defined by the number of hours of sleep a person gets or how long it takes to fall asleep. Individuals vary normally in their need for, and their satisfaction with, sleep. Insomnia may cause problems during the day, such as tiredness, a lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, and irritability.
Insomnia can be classified as transient (short term), intermittent (on and off), and chronic (constant). 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 considered to be chronic if it occurs on most nights and lasts a month or more.
Are There Different Types of Insomnia?
There are two types of insomnia: primary insomnia and secondary insomnia.
Primary insomnia: Primary insomnia means that a person is having sleep problems that are not directly associated with any other health condition or problem.
Secondary insomnia: Secondary insomnia means that a person is having sleep problems because of something else, such as a health condition (like asthma, depression, arthritis, or heartburn); pain; medication they are taking; or a substance they are using (like alcohol).
Acute vs. Chronic Insomnia
Insomnia also varies in how long it lasts and how often it occurs. It can be short-term (acute insomnia) or can last a long time (chronic insomnia). It can also come and go, with periods of time when a person has no sleep problems.
Acute insomnia can last from one night to a few weeks. Insomnia is called chronic when a person has insomnia at least three nights a week for a month or longer.
Chronic insomnia is more complex and often results from a combination of factors, including underlying physical or mental disorders. One of the most common causes of chronic insomnia is depression. Other underlying causes include arthritis, kidney disease, heart failure, asthma, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, restless legs syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, and hyperthyroidism. However, chronic insomnia may also be due to behavioral factors, including the misuse of caffeine, alcohol, or other substances; disrupted sleep/wake cycles as may occur with shift work or other nighttime activity schedules; and chronic stress.
In addition, the following behaviors have been shown to perpetuate insomnia in some people:
- Expecting to have difficulty sleeping and worrying about it
- Ingesting excessive amounts of caffeine
- Drinking alcohol before bedtime
- Smoking cigarettes before bedtime
- Excessive napping in the afternoon or evening
- Irregular or continually disrupted sleep/wake schedules
These behaviors may prolong existing insomnia, and they can also be responsible for causing the sleeping problem in the first place. Stopping these behaviors may eliminate the insomnia altogether.
If you think you have insomnia, talk to your health care provider. An evaluation may include a physical exam, a medical history, and a sleep history. You may be asked to keep a sleep diary for a week or two, keeping track of your sleep patterns and how you feel during the day. Your health care provider may want to interview your bed partner about the quantity and quality of your sleep. In some cases, you may be referred to a sleep center for special tests.
Treatment for Insomnia
Acute insomnia may not require treatment. Mild insomnia often can be prevented or cured by practicing good sleep habits. If your insomnia makes it hard for you to function during the day because you are sleepy and tired, your health care provider may prescribe sleeping pills for a limited time. Rapid onset, short-acting drugs can help you avoid effects such as drowsiness the following day. Avoid using over-the-counter sleeping pills for insomnia, because they may have undesired side effects and tend to lose their effectiveness over time.
Treatment for chronic insomnia includes first treating any underlying conditions or health problems that are causing the insomnia. If insomnia continues, your health care provider may suggest behavioral therapy. Behavioral approaches help you to change behaviors that may worsen insomnia and to learn new behaviors to promote sleep. Techniques such as relaxation exercises, sleep restriction therapy, and reconditioning may be useful.