What is insomnia?

Insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders and is defined as the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep. This lack of rest prevents the body from recovering at night and as a consequence can cause daytime sleepiness, low concentration and an inability to feel active during the day. Insomnia can occur at bedtime at night or in the morning before waking.

There are different types of insomnia:

  • Acute or short-term insomnia, which usually lasts for a number of days or weeks. It is a fairly common type of insomnia and the most typical causes include stress at work, family pressures or a traumatic event.
  • Long-term or chronic insomnia can last a month or more. Most cases of chronic insomnia are secondary, meaning that chronic insomnia is the symptom or side effect of some other problem, such as certain medical problems, medications, and other sleep disorders. It is not often that there are cases of primary chronic insomnia. Its origin is not well understood, but long-term stress, emotional distress, travel and shift work can be factors. Some substances like caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol can also be a cause.


The prognosis varies according to the type of insomnia, but there are a lot of treatment options available.

What are the symptoms of insomnia?

Insomnia symptoms include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Waking early in the morning
  • Feel irritable and tired during the day

Medical tests for insomnia

To diagnose insomnia, the specialist will take into account:

  • Medical history
  • Sleep history (details about sleeping habits)
  • A physical exam to rule out other medical problems that can cause insomnia
  • A sleep study

What are the causes of insomnia?

Common causes of insomnia include:

Can insomnia be prevented?

Keep in mind that not everyone who has trouble sleeping has insomnia.

To avoid insomnia, it is important to have good sleep hygiene:

  • Bedtime: sleep follows a rhythm, which if we break it, can cause sleep disturbances. This is why it is important to try to go to sleep at more or less the same time every day because if you go to bed earlier, the body does not recognise that your "bedtime" has arrived, and it will prove challenging to fall asleep.
  • Wake up time: be aware that the time we get up determines the time we will fall asleep later on.
  • Napping: a person with insomnia is not advised to take naps during the day, as this will aggravate their nocturnal insomnia.
  • Diet: it is not recommended to go to bed hungry or on an overly full stomach. Stimulating drinks such as coffee or caffeinated tea should not be consumed in the afternoon, as a general rule, and insomniacs should try to avoid them.
  • Exercise: Exercising throughout the day can cause beneficial fatigue, but you should avoid exercising in the late afternoon.
  • Ritual: Following a series of steps before bedtime, such as putting on pyjamas, brushing teeth, brushing hair, or taking a bath, can signal to the body that bedtime is approaching.

The most important thing is for the person to relax before bed. There is no point in trying to fall asleep when you are stimulated or full of energy, so relaxation measures can be helpful. If the insomniac still cannot fall asleep, it is preferable to get out of bed and wait for sleep, rather than staying in bed.

Treatments for insomnia

In order to treat insomnia, the first thing to know is the type of insomnia, and what is causing it, as when insomnia is a symptom or side effect of another problem, it is important to treat the underlying issue.

Treating insomnia can be approached in a number of ways:

  • Lifestyle changes: having good sleeping habits can help alleviate acute (short-term) insomnia.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy: can help alleviate anxiety related to insomnia.
  • Various medications can also help alleviate insomnia and help restore a regular sleep schedule.

Which specialist treats you?

Insomnia is a condition that can be treated from different specialties. Specialists who can help treat insomnia are neurologists, psychiatrists and psychologists.

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