The cause of nocturnal awakenings in patients with chronic insomnia is rarely researched. This study prospectively assessed the etiology of nocturnal awakenings (subjectively and objectively) among patients with insomnia at a private, community-based sleep medical center.
Twenty adult patients with chronic insomnia enrolled between April 2008 and February 2010 met diagnostic criteria for an insomnia disorder, never previously visited a sleep specialist or underwent sleep testing, and reported no classic sleep disordered breathing symptoms. Patients completed validated scales for insomnia, sleepiness, impairment, anxiety, depression, and quality of life, a qualitative interview to assess subjective reasons for awakenings, and a diagnostic sleep study to objectively assess awakenings and their precipitants.
Subjective and objective data showed clinically meaningful insomnia, primarily sleep maintenance insomnia. The most common self-reported reasons for awakenings were: uncertain cause (50%), nightmares (45%), nocturia (35%), bedroom distractions (20%), or pain (15%). No patient identified breathing symptoms as a cause. Objectively, 531 awakenings were observed in the total sample, and 478 (90%) were preceded by sleep breathing events (apnea, hypopnea, or respiratory effort-related event). Fifty-three awakenings were caused by other factors (independent leg jerks , spontaneous , and sleep that was laboratory-induced ). Thirty awakenings ≥ 5 min—a duration sufficient to predispose toward an insomnia episode—were each preceded by a breathing event.
Among patients with insomnia with no classic sleep breathing symptoms and therefore low probability of a sleep breathing disorder, most of their awakenings were precipitated by a medical condition (sleep disordered breathing), which contrasted sharply with their perceptions about their awakenings.
Krakow B; Romero E; Ulibarri VA; Kikta S. Prospective assessment of nocturnal awakenings in a case series of treatment-seeking chronic insomnia patients: a pilot study of subjective and objective causes. SLEEP 2012;35(12):1685-1692.