Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) can have lasting consequences on thinking, ability to function and work, and quality of life. Fifty percent of those with TBI develop sleep apnea, insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, and other sleep problems. Difficulty sleeping can interfere with recovery, making rehabilitation and healing more difficult. When people with TBI get poor sleep, it dramatically worsens their thinking, memory, and attention, and increases their risk of dementia. The two most common sleep problems in TBI are sleep apnea and insomnia.
People with sleep apnea stop breathing during the night. This deprives the brain and heart of oxygen, slowing down recovery and putting patients at risk for heart disease and stroke. Struggling to breathe every night leaves them exhausted during the daytime. People with insomnia have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep.
TBI may also cause irregular sleep patterns, staying awake at night and sleeping during the daytime. Treatment of sleep disorders in those with TBI can greatly improve memory, decision-making, and attention. Because of the seriousness of TBI, most patients should be evaluated in a hospital-based sleep lab, where advanced testing can be performed. It is a good idea to keep a nightly sleep diary, which helps doctors pinpoint the specifics of their sleep disorders. Once the sleep disorder is diagnosed, CPAP therapy is the first-line treatment for those with sleep apnea. If CPAP does not completely resolve all of the sleep problems, further investigation is warranted to rule out other types of sleep disorders.
Melatonin, cognitive behavioral therapy, certain medications, and other therapeutic techniques are more effective than common sleep aids and sedatives. Sleep disorders in patients with TBI are underdiagnosed and undertreated. In light of the seriousness of brain injuries, all TBI patients with sleep problems should undergo advanced testing that identifies specific TBI-related sleep disorders.