It is not abnormal for traumatic brain injury (TBI) patients to experience some type of sleep disorder. In fact, researchers believe that 30% to 70% of TBI patients experience a sleep-wake disturbance in some form or fashion. Why is this the case? Because as your body’s boss, your brain serves as an “internal clock” that tells you when to sleep and when to wake up, which means an injury to your brain can change how well it regulates your sleep schedule.
WHY WE NEED SLEEP
In general, sleep is necessary for the body and brain to recharge. After a TBI, sleep is especially important because it helps the injured part of your body heal. However, because sleep disturbances can interfere with your ability to sleep, they can interfere with your brain’s healing process following your injury. In fact, several studies have shown that disrupted sleep impairs the rehabilitation process and has a negative impact on a patient’s quality of life.
COMMON SLEEP DISORDERS
There are several common sleep disorders that TBI patients may experience, such as insomnia (difficulty falling and staying asleep), sleep apnea (interrupted breathing during sleep), and hypersomnia (excessive daytime sleepiness or prolonged nighttime sleep). It may seem obvious, but these types of sleep disturbances can be, well, tiring. Aside from the exhaustion, sleep disturbances can cause you to feel irritable, affect your brain’s functioning and ability to concentrate, and take a toll on your emotions.
In some cases, patients may experience a lot of anxiety following a TBI, which can also be a sign of a sleep disturbance. Anxiety and other changes in mood present a sort of “chicken or the egg” dilemma—does the change in mood cause the sleep disturbance, or does the sleep disturbance cause the change in mood? Regardless of which comes first (or if it’s really even that simple), it’s important to talk to your health care provider about the ways in which you can address any of the symptoms you’re experiencing related to changes in your mood and/or your sleeping habits.
DIAGNOSING SLEEP DISORDERS IN PATIENTS WITH HEAD INJURIES
Unfortunately, TBI patients’ sleep disorders often go undiagnosed, which means they might not be properly treated. One reason for the lack of diagnosis and treatment could be that several symptoms of sleep disturbances are similar to those you might experience after a TBI; because it appears as though the brain injury is responsible for the symptoms, they go without specific treatment. Also, treating patients with sleep disturbances and TBI presents additional challenges. For example, health care providers must take special care when prescribing any medications to help with your sleep disturbance because certain drugs meant to help you sleep can weaken your brain’s ability to repair and recover following your injury.
Overall, it is difficult to know how much sleep disturbances affect TBI patients. Still, no matter what research needs to happen, it doesn’t mean you have to go without help now. If you are a TBI patient experiencing any sleep disturbances, talk to your doctor about the ways your sleep issues can be evaluated and treated. If your sleep disturbance is recognized and treated early on, it’s possible you could have improved recovery outcomes.