What is insomnia?

You've probably had nights where you couldn't fall asleep, no matter how desperately you tried. When you can't sleep the ticking of the clock only reminds you of your exhaustion and the endless hours until morning. And perhaps you finally drop off around dawn, only to be jarred awake by the alarm an hour later. 

Insomnia is a term used to describe having trouble sleeping at night, and is one of the most common sleep conditions. About 1 in 3 adults has bouts of insomnia that last a few days at a time. This is called acute insomnia. But 1 in 10 adults suffers ongoing difficulty sleeping, known as chronic insomnia

What causes insomnia?

Insomnia has many possible causes. You may need to see a sleep specialist to find out what is causing your insomnia. They can include any or all of these:

  • Medications that interfere with sleep
  • Dietary choices, such as caffeine late in the day
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Hormone changes, such as those accompanying menopause
  • Sleep disorders
  • Chronic pain 
  • Medical conditions such as acid reflux, thyroid problems, stoke or asthma
  • Substances like alcohol and nicotine
  • Travel, especially between time zones. 

What are the symptoms of insomnia?

These are common symptoms of insomnia: 

  • Frustration and preoccupation with your lack of sleep
  • Physical aches and pains, such as headaches and stomach aches
  • Impaired performance at work
  • Daytime drowsiness or low energy
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Anxiety
  • Tension and irritability
  • Depression and mood swings

How is insomnia diagnosed?

You may need to see a sleep specialist to find out what's causing your insomnia. It will be helpful to bring a record of your sleep patterns. 

The process of making a diagnosis may include: 

  • Your medical history. Your doctor will consider any medical conditions, any medications you're taking, and stressful life changes that could be causing your insomnia. 
  • Your sleep history. Be prepared to describe your insomnia with details such as how long it has been going on, what you think could be contributing to it, and what your sleep is like, such as whether you can barely get to sleep at all or if you wake up too early. 
  • Physical exam. The doctor will look for any physical reasons that could be causing sleep problems. 
  • Sleep study. You may need to sleep overnight in a sleep lab where researchers monitor your sleep. To learn more about a sleep study click here

© 2018 Intermountain Healthcare. All rights reserved. The content presented here is for your information only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, and it should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Please consult your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns.