What is Idiopathic Insomnia?

D. Jeffress

Idiopathic insomnia is a chronic problem going to sleep or staying asleep that occurs on a regular, sometimes nightly, basis. Unlike most other types of sleep disorders, there are no clear genetic or environmental causes associated with idiopathic insomnia. People with the condition typically begin experiencing sleeping problems in very early childhood and struggle with them throughout their lives. Besides the predictable effects of daytime tiredness and lack of energy, insomnia can impair the immune system and cause significant mood changes and behavior issues. The condition cannot be cured, but medications and behavioral therapy can help many patients get more sleep and better manage daytime symptoms.

A woman with insomnia.
A woman with insomnia.

The severity of idiopathic insomnia can vary between patients. Some people have relatively minor difficulties going to sleep, and they may not experience major consequences in their daily lives. A person with a serious case of idiopathic insomnia, however, may get less than three or four hours of sleep every single night and constantly feel lethargic, irritable, and tired during the day. School and work performance often suffers as a result.

Keeping a sleep diary will help establish information about a sleeping pattern.
Keeping a sleep diary will help establish information about a sleeping pattern.

Parents of a child who has chronic sleeping problems can consult with pediatricians and psychiatrists to learn about possible causes and different treatment options. A doctor usually tests blood samples to look for signs of thyroid disorders or hormonal imbalances that may be responsible for symptoms. Neurological exams are used to check for obvious physical defects in the brain. If no medical problems are found, a psychiatrist may suggest keeping a sleep diary for about one month to get accurate data about sleeping patterns. Treatment decisions can be made after thoroughly assessing the problem and ruling out all potential underlying causes.

Common medications for idiopathic insomnia include benzodiazepines and melatonin receptor agonists. Prescription drugs can help relax the central nervous system and make it easier to drift into healthy sleep. Depending on the severity of a patient's problem, he or she may be instructed to take medications only on especially wakeful nights or every day around bedtime.

In addition to medical care, psychologists and sleep experts can help patients learn about the importance of good sleep hygiene. Setting a regular bedtime, eliminating caffeine from the diet, and keeping the bedroom as dark and quiet as possible helps many sufferers get more hours of sleep each night. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can also help older children, adolescents, and adults better understand their conditions and develop healthier day and nighttime routines.

Prescription sleep aids can be a short-term treatment for insomnia.
Prescription sleep aids can be a short-term treatment for insomnia.

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