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When Does Temporary Sleeplessness Become Insomnia?

By: Jennie Kermode - Updated: 21 May 2013 | comments*Discuss
Sleeplessness Sleep Problems How Long

Everybody suffers from sleeplessness from time to time. Whether it's caused by illness, stress, pain or over-excitement, it's a common problem. So how can you tell if your problem is just temporary or if it's becoming something more serious? How long should you wait before deciding that you may have insomnia, and when should you seek medical help?

Patterns of Sleeplessness

Insomnia can take a number of forms. It might mean that you simply can't sleep at all, that you sleep at the wrong times or that you suffer from disrupted sleep. What all serious cases of insomnia have in common is that they will leave you feeling tired and drained, making it hard for you to cope as well as usual in your day to day life.

Although it's often said that everyone needs eight hours' sleep a night to be healthy, in fact the amount varies quite a bit from one person to another. Some otherwise healthy people need as many as ten hours' sleep a night for optimum functioning during the day, whilst others need as few as four. This can also vary at different times in a person's life.

It's not unusual for healthy people to go through periods when they don't sleep much at all. As long as you feel well and don't suffer concentration problems, this is unlikely to be anything to worry about. Likewise, sleeping at the wrong times can usually be fixed by forcing yourself to get up an hour or two earlier each day, with few ill effects. Don't worry unless you find that it' an ongoing struggle.

Problems to Watch Out for

Even episodes of sleeplessness that do lead to you feeling overtired will usually not turn into anything serious. most resolve themselves within two weeks. If you continue having problems for four weeks, it's generally a good idea to seek medical help. A pharmacist can provide interim support if it takes a long time to get an appointment with your doctor.

True insomnia often develops alongside other symptoms. If you find yourself dreaming more than usual, getting upset more easily, feeling dehydrated or being more sensitive to bright light, you should take your problem more seriously. Never let sleeplessness go on for more than six weeks without seeking help.

If your sleeplessness has a clear underlying cause, such as pain from a sprained ankle that you know is going to heal soon, you should seek help if it persists. This is because ongoing sleeplessness can itself lead to problems. In the case of injury, it can interfere with the normal healing process.

Early Intervention

Like most health problems, insomnia can be more effectively treated if it's caught early. The longer it remains untreated, the more likely it is to become a habit and to persist even after the initial cause is gone. This means that an early visit you your doctor can be a very good idea. Unfortunately, busy doctors can be unsympathetic if they think your problem is a minor one, so it's important to be able to make your case clearly.

Start by keeping a sleep diary detailing the times that you go to bed, fall asleep and wake up again. It's also useful to record any instances of feeling exhausted or faint during the day. Make notes of any medical conditions you have that are associated with insomnia, or if you have a family history of sleep problems - these factors should get your problem taken more seriously.

Although early intervention is a good idea, sleeping pills may not be. Your doctor will probably suggest other things to try in the immediate term. It's better to start with solutions that will cause minimal difficulty if you turn out to have been misdiagnosed.

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