How are sleep disorders treated?
If a sleep problem is being caused by something specific, this cause should be addressed and treated appropriately. Medication may help to alleviate some sleep problems but will not deal with the root cause of poor sleeping patterns. In sleep problems caused by depression, for example, a combination of counseling and/or antidepressant therapy should be prescribed if necessary. Medication may be of use if the depression is not linked to anything in particular but, if there is a specific factor in the person’s life which is causing the depression, then this needs to be looked at and help given to deal with the problem. If the sleep disturbance is being caused by another medical problem, such as pain, then painkillers or other appropriate medication should be given. If there is no underlying cause for a sleep problem, a hypnotic medicine may be prescribed.

Benzodiazepines dampen activity in the brain but the effects may last into the next day and cause drowsiness, particularly in elderly people. These medicines will be prescribed only for short-term treatment of insomnia. There are some newer treatments which act in a similar way to benzodiazepines and which are useful for people who have difficulty in falling asleep. These include zaleplon (Sonata), zolpidem (Ambien, Edluar, Zolpimist), eszopiclone (Lunesta), and ramelteon (Rozerem). The barbiturates are a very powerful class of drugs and are only prescribed when insomnia is very severe and other medication is not effective.

Self-help measures

  • Establish a routine for sleep. Aim to go to sleep at the same time each night and wake at the same time each morning.
  • Avoid any stimulants such as caffeine in coffee or carbonated drinks for four hours before going to bed. Try to avoid eating a fatty meal late at night.
  • Stretching exercises and sexual intercourse improve relaxation but vigorous exercise does not.
  • Avoid sleeping during the day to catch up on lost sleep.
  • Try relaxation tapes or aromatherapy.

Further information
National Sleep Foundation: www.sleepfoundation.org

Last Reviewed: May 2013