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When is Insomnia a Disorder and When is it a Symptom?

When does insomnia cross the line to becoming a sleep disorder? (photo credit: BigStockPhoto.com)

When does insomnia cross the line to becoming a sleep disorder? (photo credit: BigStockPhoto.com)

Although insomnia is the sleep disorder we are most likely to self-diagnose, it is one problem we must bring up to our doctor.  For most people, insomnia means not being able to fall asleep.  This is one of the symptoms or signs of insomnia, but it isn’t the only one.

The technical definition of insomnia is not being able to get the sleep you need. This can include not being able to fall asleep but it can also mean waking up numerous times during the night, waking too early, or waking and not being able to get back to sleep.  Since many of us wouldn’t characterize these sleep challenges as insomnia, it’s very likely that we also shrug them off as a bad night’s sleep.  The danger here is that insomnia, whether it is a sleep disorder or just the symptom of another sleep disorder, can increase your risk of developing a debilitating and even deadly disease.

When is Insomnia a Sleep Disorder?

It is probably safe to say that if you are struggling with insomnia on a regular basis, it qualifies as a sleep disorder regardless of what other conditions are present.  People struggling with insomnia can experience any or all of the following:

  • Trouble falling asleep at night, even when tired
  • Waking up numerous times during the night
  • Waking up during the night and struggling to get back to sleep
  • Waking up earlier than planned and not being able to get back to sleep
  • Feeling tired upon waking

There are two different types of insomnia, primary and secondary.  If you have primary insomnia, your difficulties sleeping are not related to any other sleep disorder or medical condition.  This is when insomnia would be characterized as a sleep disorder.

Primary insomnia can be caused by a number of things like increased stress, emotional distress, physical discomfort, jet lag, shifting schedules, and environmental factors like noise or light.  In some cases, addressing these things can alleviate the insomnia.  This is why the first step in many treatment plans for addressing primary insomnia is improving sleep hygiene.

When is Insomnia a Symptom of Another Sleep Disorder?

The second type of insomnia, secondary insomnia, results when there is another condition that is causing the insomnia.  In these cases, the insomnia is treated as a symptom of the other condition even though it is essentially the same as when it is a standalone sleep disorder.  There are many different health problems that can cause insomnia.  Medical conditions like asthma, cancer, and arthritis can cause insomnia.  Mental health problems like depression and anxiety can also cause these symptoms.  External factors like medications and alcohol use can also lead to insomnia.

Both types of insomnia can be characterized as acute or chronic.  People with acute insomnia may struggle with sleep for as little as one or two nights or for several weeks but they also experience times when they have no symptoms of insomnia.  If someone struggles with insomnia three or more nights a week for at least a month, they would be diagnosed with chronic insomnia.

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