What is insomnia?

Sleep is one of the most vital processes of life and serves many important functions, including preservation, restoration, and memory processing. Repeated disruption of the natural sleep cycle or failure to initiate sleep (i.e., sleep disorder) can lead to a sleep deficit, which in turn causes physical, mental, and emotional fatigue. Most individuals with a sleep disorder experience a myriad of symptoms and a reduction in quality of life .

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) publication The International Classification of Sleep Disorders, Third Edition (ICSD-3) identifies more than 80 official sleep disorders.

Many are uncommon, but a handful (e.g., insomnias, obstructive sleep apnea, narcolepsy, restless legs syndrome) affect millions of Americans and are responsible for significant morbidity and mortality, including direct physiologic and/or psychologic complications and accidents associated with moderate or severe drowsiness.

It is estimated that 50 to 70 million adult Americans have a sleep or wakefulness disorder. Some of the most serious long-term health consequences of sleep disorders (or sleep insufficiency/deficit) include glucose intolerance, increased blood pressure, increased inflammatory markers, higher evening cortisol levels, weight gain/obesity, and an increased risk of myocardial infarction, depression, and cancer.

Additionally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that in 2017, 91,000 police-reported crashes involved drowsy drivers. These crashes led to an estimated 50,000 people injured and nearly 800 deaths. In 2019, there were 697 deaths from drowsy driving-related crashes.

The economic cost of sleep disorders should not be underestimated. One study found that individual healthcare costs were approximately doubled for patients with undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea.

Research commissioned by Congress in 1993 found that direct annual medical costs for insomnia were $15.2 billion (with the amount spent on over-the-counter products not included), and that the indirect and related annual costs (mostly costs arising from accidents) approached $56 billion. In 2020, the aggregate total of direct and indirect insomnia healthcare costs has been estimated to be as high as $100 billion U.S. dollars per year .

A 2011 study found that annual workplace losses (including workplace accidents) due to insomnia and associated comorbidities totaled $91.7 billion per year [11]. The study, using extrapolated data from 7,428 U.S. workers enrolled in healthcare plans, found that presenteeism (i.e., attending work while drowsy) accounted for the majority of the losses (roughly two-thirds) and absenteeism accounted for the remainder.

Comorbidity is a major factor, yet after 26 conditions were controlled for, the net annual costs of insomnia alone were $63.2 billion. One limitation of the study was that only data from workers with healthcare insurance were sampled.

Although the prevalence of insomnia may be similar among insured and uninsured populations, undiagnosed and untreated sleep disorders can amount to greater overall long-term cost. A 2015 study reiterated the negative impact on work performance (e.g., absenteeism, presenteeism, workplace injury, accidents driving to/from work) of one sleep disorder in particular, obstructive sleep apnea.

Sleep disorders have a clear impact on productivity and public health. The AASM and the Institute of Medicine emphasize that education on somnology and sleep medicine should be incorporated into continuing education programs .

Many of the complications associated with sleep disorders are preventable, making early diagnosis and appropriate treatment vital. Unfortunately, research indicates that sleep disorders continue to be underdiagnosed and undertreated .

One study of relatively healthy patients seeking preventive care found that 57% either reported a sleep complaint related to sleep apnea or were found to be at increased risk for the condition [14]. However, only 11% of individuals who reported sleep complaints underwent any subsequent diagnostic testing, indicating a gap in factual knowledge and appropriate clinical behaviors .

Outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV/SARS-CoV-2 [COVID-19]), also are associated with major psychologic distress and significant symptoms, including poor sleep quality.

A systematic review and meta-analysis, conducted to examine the impact of the pandemic on the prevalence of sleep problems among the general population, healthcare workers, or patients with COVID-19, found a prevalence of approximately 40% among the general and healthcare populations, with a higher prevalence of sleep problems among patients with active COVID-19.

What causes insomnia?

Insomnia is sometimes a symptom of an underlying health condition such as hypothyroidism or gastric reflux. Alternatively, the cause could be more closely related to lifestyle or sleep habits. Some of the many reasons you might have insomnia include:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Shift work
  • Late-night eating
  • Caffeine
  • Chronic pain
  • Sleep apnea
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Some medications can contribute to insomnia, including blood pressure medicines, asthma medicines, and antidepressants. Over-the-counter medicines containing stimulants, such as painkillers containing caffeine, are common causes of insomnia.

How is insomnia treated?

Anticonvulsants, dopamine agonists, tranquilizers, and opioid narcotics are used to manage symptoms of restless legs syndrome, and iron supplements are used when indicated.

Dopamine agonists considered effective for restless legs syndrome management include pramipexole and ropinirole, but rotigotine is recommended for long-term therapy. These and other antiparkinsonian drugs are also first-line therapies for PLMD and may improve sleep in patients with both disorders.

The anticonvulsants gabapentin and pregabalin reduce movement symptoms and neuropathic pain in patients with either restless legs syndrome or PLMD and may also help to improve sleep; however, use of these medications for restless legs syndrome and PLMD is off-label.

Gabapentin enacarbil is on-label and is preferred over gabapentin for long-term treatment. Other treatments for these sleep disorders include stress management, muscle relaxation exercises, and sleep hygiene.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has identified pramipexole and ropinirole as the agents with the highest level of evidence supporting their use in the treatment of patients with restless legs syndrome.

The initial dose of ropinirole (immediate-release) is 0.25 mg taken one to three hours before bedtime; the dose may be increased to 0.5 mg after two days, to 1 mg after one week, and to a maximum dose of 4 mg at week 7. Common adverse effects include dizziness (6% to 40%), fatigue (8% to 11%), nausea (40% to 60%), somnolence (11% to 40%), syncope (1% to 12%), and viral infection (11%).

The rotigotine (transdermal patch) initial dose is 1 mg/24 hours (one patch per day). The daily dose may be increased by 1 mg/24 hours each week, to a maximum daily dose of 3 mg/24 hours. Dose-related application site reactions are common (21% to 46%), as are gastrointestinal complications such as nausea (15% to 48%) and vomiting (2% to 20%), and CNS reactions (e.g., somnolence, dizziness, headache, fatigue, orthostatic hypotension, hallucinations). Therefore, an extended low-dose trial is recommended.

Higher doses of gabapentin (2,000–2,400 mg daily) have been found to be significantly more effective than placebo in reducing moderate-to-severe restless legs syndrome symptoms, but higher doses are also associated with a high prevalence of adverse effects (e.g., dizziness, fatigue, nausea, pain, weakness).

The recommended initial dose for restless legs syndrome treatment (off-label) is 300 mg taken two hours before bedtime; the dose may be titrated every two weeks, until desired response is achieved, to a maximum dose of 1,800 mg.

(Dosages of up to 3,600 mg have been tolerated in short-term studies but are not recommended.) A combination of lower-dose gabapentin (300–1,000 mg daily) and ropinirole (0.25–1.5 mg daily) is also effective for treating restless legs syndrome and is associated with a lower incidence of adverse effects than high-dose gabapentin alone.

Gabapentin enacarbil is FDA-approved for the treatment of restless legs syndrome and is preferred over gabapentin due to longer duration of action and improved absorption.

The dosage is 300-600 mg once daily at approximately 5 p.m. Worsening side effects are seen at higher doses, and no benefit is reported at a dose of 1,200 mg compared with 600 mg. Adverse effects (at a 600-mg daily dose) include dizziness (13% to 17%), headache (10% to 12%), and somnolence (20%), and a low rate of gastrointestinal effects are also observed (e.g., nausea, 6% to 8%).

Pooled analysis of long-term use of gabapentin and other antiepileptic drugs has validated concerns regarding suicidal ideation and behavior (0.43%) compared with placebo (0.24%).

Human data regarding pancreatic cancer risk have yet to be compiled, although gabapentin is associated with pancreatic adenocarcinoma in rats.

Multiple studies have shown that pregabalin is effective for managing sensory and motor symptoms of restless legs syndrome and has a low rate of mild adverse effects across a wide dosage range.

A reduction of periodic limb movements and sleep architecture improvements (e.g., increase in slow-wave sleep, decrease in waking after sleep onset and during sleep stages 1 and 2) were noted. In one study, the mean effective dose for pregabalin was approximately 350 mg/day, but in another study, a dose of 125 mg/day was shown to be effective in 90% of participants.

Pregabalin is usually taken in divided doses, either two or three times a day. Dizziness (3% to 45%) and somnolence (17% to 26%) are the most frequent adverse effects.

Lifestyle Modifications and Alternative Therapies

Stress reduction, muscle relaxation techniques, and physical activity are important components of a restless legs syndrome management strategy, along with improved nutrition, proper sleep hygiene, and elimination of caffeine and alcohol intake.

Supplementation with specific vitamins and minerals known to support the nervous system and improve blood circulation (e.g., vitamins B12, C, D, and E; glucosamine; magnesium; zinc) may be considered for patients with inadequate nutritional intake, but little research exists apart from small studies showing some degree of symptom reduction with supplementation with vitamins B and E .

Other alternative therapies with little or no scientific support include acupuncture, meditation, and prayer.

Moderate aerobic exercise and lower-body resistance training are recommended to both assist in the relief of psychologic stress and lessen the severity of symptoms. Endorphin release, dopamine production, and increased blood flow to leg muscles are believed to mediate symptoms.

Massage, warm baths, and heating pads may also be used to relieve and/or prevent restless legs syndrome symptoms, though there is a lack of strong efficacy data for these therapies. Case studies have shown a positive effect with massage (and a return of symptoms after cessation of massage therapy regimens), but the mechanisms involved are unclear.

Theories include improved blood circulation, dopamine release, counterstimulation of the cerebral cortex, and modulated thalamic neural activity as a response to tactile and temperature stimulus. Pulsed pneumatic compression devices have also been shown to reduce symptom severity; the proposed beneficial mechanisms are similar to those of massage.

Near-infrared light therapy has also successfully reduced restless legs syndrome symptom severity in small-scale studies.

There is a strong placebo effect in restless legs syndrome therapy. A 2008 meta-analysis of 36 clinical trials found that one-third of patients had a significant improvement while receiving placebo medications.

In 24 of the trials, 40% of participants had a placebo response. However, this level of response was based on a reduction in the International Restless Legs Severity Scale score alone, and the placebo response was only moderate for other measures (e.g., daytime functioning, other restless legs syndrome measures).

The placebo effect was found to be small for PLMD therapy.

In 2014, the FDA cleared the first device to improve sleep quality in patients with restless legs syndrome. The device, marketed as Relaxis, consists of a vibrating pad that provides counterstimulation to a patient’s legs as he or she sleeps. The manufacturer cautions that this device should not be used on patients who have had deep venous thrombosis in either leg in the six months prior to the initiation of therapy.

Other recommendations for chronic insomnia may include:

  • CBT I (cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia)
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Biofeedback
  • Breathing exercises
  • Sleep restriction
  • Stress management
  • Passive wakefulness
  • Light therapy

If insomnia is disrupting your health and well-being, contact Seattle Telepsychiatry today or request an appointment online.

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