It can feel like torture. You lie awake in bed for hours, worried that sleep will never come. And then the alarm clock rings.
About one in four adults has trouble sleeping, while more than 10 per cent say their sleep frequently or even persistently isn’t restful, according to Germany’s central body for biomedicine, the Berlin-based Robert Koch Institute.
But there are remedies. We asked the sleep experts the questions going through sleepless minds.
What is a sleep disorder?
There are various kinds of sleep disorders with diverse causes, according to Hans-Guenter Weess of the German Sleep Society (DGSM).
“What is commonly referred to as ‘sleep disorder’ is actually insomnia, which is a difficulty falling and/or staying asleep,” he says.
Many people will also regularly experience the problem of not being able to sleep through the night, says Jens Wagenknecht, executive board member of the German Association of General Practitioners.
What causes sleep disorders?
The causes are often very complex. They could be physical, psychological or behavioural in nature. A sleep disorder might be a side effect of a medication, and not infrequently it’s a result of another illness.
“Awakening very early often occurs in cases of depression,” Weess says, although multiple factors may play a role.
Someone with a herniated disc, for example, experiences pain in a lying position, wakes up every two or three hours at night and might then start brooding over personal problems, Weess explains. “That leads to tension, making it impossible to sleep.”
When should someone with trouble sleeping see a doctor?
If you sleep poorly at least three nights a week over a period of a month and are impaired during the day, then you should seek medical help, Weess says.
Impairment can take various forms: tiredness or exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, irritability and moodiness, as well as physical symptoms such as headaches or gastrointestinal problems.
To treat a sleep disorder it’s important to find its cause. Treatment options include a change to sleep habits, cognitive behavioural therapy and medication. However sleeping tablets are recommended only in exceptional cases and for no longer than two weeks.
To what sort of doctor should one turn?
If you don’t have access to a sleep specialist, you should see your family physician, who can determine whether the underlying problem is physical, Weess advises.
What can a poor sleeper do to get a good night’s rest?
There are quite a lot of things you can do, according to Weess. People suffering from restlessness at night are advised to go to bed and get up at regular times, while also avoiding lying awake in bed too long, napping during the day, drinking alcohol and watching television or using devices in bed.
Having a clock in the bedroom is also a bad idea, Weess says, since this can lead to counting the hours before it’s time to get up.
When is a sleep study called for?
Physicians will often recommend an examination for a sleep study in cases of snoring with breathing stoppages (sleep apnea), abnormal daytime fatigue or sleepwalking, says Dr Ingo Fietze, director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Sleep Medicine at Berlin’s Charite hospital. It can also be used to find the reason a patient can’t stay asleep.
During the examination, patients hooked up to electrodes that measure things like electrical brain and heart activity, muscle activity and eye movements, before going to bed at the usual time.
Besides the electrodes the patient is fitted with a chest belt to measure respiration, a device attached to the nose to measure |breathing rate and changes in inhalation and exhalation, and a pulse oximeter on a finger to measure blood oxygen saturation levels. The person is also observed by a camera suspended from the ceiling while they sleep.