Insomnia: Signs and Symptoms, Causes and Treatments

Insomnia is a condition that makes a person unable to sleep or unable to stay asleep at night. This sleep disorder affects millions of people all over the world. Because there is a disturbance in a patient’s normal sleeping pattern, insomnia often leads to daytime sleepiness, lethargy, and a general feeling of unwell mentally and physically.

Types of Insomnia

Insomnia is not just a single disorder, it’s comprised of a wider range of sleep conditions, which we will define below:

Transient Insomnia

Transient insomnia is a brief episode of wakefulness at night or inability to fall asleep. This condition lasts for several days to a few weeks.

Acute Insomnia

This condition is better known as short-term insomnia. However, the episode of wakefulness at night lasts for months at a time.

Chronic Insomnia

This is a long-term sleep disorder that persists for several months to years. According to a study by the National Institutes of Health, the common cause of chronic insomnia is an undiagnosed medical condition.

Insomnia can strike anytime; it does not discriminate against gender or age. However, this sleep disorder is more common among adult females than adult males. In fact, the National Sleep Foundation reported that 30% to 40% of American adults exhibit signs of insomnia within the last 12 months while 10% to 15% of adults suffer from chronic insomnia.

If left untreated, insomnia can lead to a variety of health problems. These health issues include memory problems, irritability, anxiety, obesity, depression, weak immunity, reduced reaction time, and cognitive problems. This condition is a precursor to chronic diseases. Sleep deprivation also increases the risk of accidents and injuries.

Image used under Creative Commons from Judit Klein

Causes of Insomnia

A variety of physical and psychological factors can trigger an insomnia episode. Sometimes, an underlying health condition can also cause acute or chronic insomnia. On the other hand, transient insomnia can be triggered by a recent occurrence.

The most common causes of insomnia include:

  • Jetlag
  • Psychological disorders (depression, anxiety, psychotic and bipolar disorder)
  • Serious medical condition (tumor, stroke, chronic pain, congestive heart failure, asthma, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, brain lesions, etc.
  • Hormonal imbalance in women (the sudden influx of estrogen in the system)
  • Sensitivity to outside noise (sleeping next to a snoring partner, TV or computers left turned on)
  • Genetic conditions
  • Pregnancy
  • Medications (Corticosteroids, statins, alpha-blockers, beta-blockers, antidepressants, ACE inhibitors, etc.)
  • Smoking
  • Certain types of food and beverage (caffeinated drinks)

According to University of Helsinki researchers, extended use of media technology can also cause insomnia, particularly in children. Research shows that children who have video games, mobile phones, or TV in their bedrooms are more likely to suffer from insomnia than children who do not have these devices in their respective bedrooms.

In a separate study, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute researchers found that the blue-based tint of computers and mobile phones could also disrupt normal sleeping patterns in both adults and children.

Signs and Symptoms of Insomnia

Insomnia can lead to a variety of symptoms, particularly chronic fatigue and daytime sleepiness. A person suffering from this condition feels tired and sleepy even after a night’s rest. Focusing on simple tasks and dulled cognitive functions are the hallmarks of sleep deprivation too.

  • Wakefulness and restlessness at night
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Waking up much earlier than normal
  • Exhaustion even after a night’s sleep
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Poor concentration and/or focus
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Worrying about sleeping at night
  • Lack of coordination
  • Tension headaches
  • Depression
  • Irritability or anxiety

The inability to fall asleep and lack of mental focus the next day has dire consequences. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, about 20% of non-alcohol road accident injuries are caused by sleepiness.

Diagnosing Insomnia

To diagnose this condition, you need to have yourself checked by a specialist. Your doctor will ask a series of questions related to your sleep patterns and medical history. After the initial checkup, you will go through a physical exam to determine if the condition is caused by an undiagnosed health problem. You may also go through psychiatric screening if the condition is caused by mental problems or drugs/alcohol.

Once diagnosed with insomnia, you might be asked to keep a sleep diary to know more about your own sleeping patterns and take prescription pills to induce sleep at night. Do note that treatment for insomnia are more focused on the cause of the condition rather than prescribing pills to help a patient stay asleep at night. That’s because once the root of the problem has been discovered, you can go back to your normal sleeping habits.

Image used under Creative Commons from Alyssa L. Miller

Treating Insomnia

Insomnia can be treated using a variety of medical and non-medical treatments. These treatments include:

Developing Better Sleeping Habits

Your doctor will provide you a checklist of things you need to do to develop better sleeping habits. This checklist may include daily exercise, regular sleep schedule, and creating a comfortable sleeping environment to help you fall asleep. Your doctor may advise against forcing yourself to sleep, drinking caffeinated drink a couple of hours before bedtime or smoking to treat disturbed sleep. Mobile phones, video games, and TV use will be limited to the living room, not the bedroom.

Relaxation Techniques

You have to perform a variety of relaxation technique to ease anxiety, promote calmness, and develop better sleeping habits. These relaxation techniques may include meditation, yoga, light exercises, mindfulness, breathing exercises, massage therapy, visualization, etc.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy is conducted two ways: one-on-one counseling or group counseling. This treatment involves changing a patient’s attitude, behaviors, and beliefs that are causing wakefulness at night.

Stimulus Control Therapy

This treatment is designed to set the stage for deeper, more restful sleep at night. Stimulus control therapy is meant to ease anxiety and correct bad sleeping habits to relax the mind and promote better sleep.

Sleep Restriction

This treatment involves partially depriving the body of sleep to increase tiredness at night; hence, you won’t have difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep. This may involve reducing the time spent in bed during the day and night.

Prescription Medication

For severe cases of insomnia, a stronger set of sleeping aids is needed. Your doctor may give you a prescription for sleeping pills, antidepressant meds, antihistamines, melatonin, and Ramelteon to induce sleep at night.