Sleep Disorders: Sleep and Chronic Illness

Last Editorial Review: 6/20/2005
The Cleveland Clinic

A chronic illness is an illness that lasts for a long time and usually cannot be cured. Examples include diabetes, arthritis, HIV/AIDS, lupus, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and multiple sclerosis. Although these diseases can't be cured, they can often be controlled.

How Does Chronic Illness Affect Sleep?

The pain and fatigue that people with chronic illness experience have a large impact on their daily lives, including sleep . Because of their illness, these patients often have trouble sleeping at night, and are sleepy during the day. This is especially the case for people who have neurological (nervous system) diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Insomnia can make the persons pain and quality of life worse. In addition, some drugs used to treat chronic illnesses can cause sleep problems.

People who have a chronic illness may also suffer from depression, which can affect their sleep.

How Are Sleeping Problems Associated With Chronic Illness Treated?

The first step is to try to control the pain associated with the illness. Once pain is controlled, sleeping may not be a problem. Your doctor can prescribe the appropriate pain relieving medication that suits your condition.

If following adequate pain control, you are still experiencing problems with sleep, these simple steps may help.

  • Keep noise in the room and surrounding area down as much as possible
  • Sleep in a dark room
  • Keep the room temperature as comfortable as possible
  • Eat or drink foods that induce sleep, such as warm milk
  • Avoid naps during the day
  • Avoid foods that contain caffeine
  • There are a number of other non-medicinal approaches that are effective for sleep, including biofeedback, relaxation training, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and sleep restriction techniques. These therapies are most often administered by a psychologist who specializes in sleep disorders.

If these methods are not effective, there are several prescription medications to help people sleep. These agents include Ambien, Sonata, and Restoril, as well as benzodiazepines, antidepressants, antihistamines, and antipsychotics. For patients who have chronic pain and depression, insomnia may best be treated with tricyclic antidepressants.

It's usually a good idea to try non-drug pain-reducing methods before turning to sleep medications. When medications are prescribed, it's best to use them for a short time only (less than two weeks). If they are used for longer periods, sleep medications like Ambien can cause tolerance and psychological dependence.

Talk to your doctor to find the best sleep solution for you.

Reviewed by The Sleep Medicine Center at The Cleveland Clinic.

Edited by Michael J. Breus, PhD, WebMD, September 2004.

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