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An Under-Examined Danger of Insomnia

Insomnia and how it relates to one's health

Insomnia is a widespread sleep disorder among American adults, affecting more than 20% of the population. More than one third of adults in the US experience symptoms of insomnia on one or more nights per week according to the National Sleep Foundation, and as many as 15% of American adults have symptoms serious enough to be considered chronic insomnia.

You may be familiar with the symptoms of insomnia: fatigue, diminished cognitive function, irritability, and daytime sleepiness. You may also know that insomnia puts you at greater risk for other serious health problems, including obesitycardiovascular disease, and diabetes. But did you know that insomnia also increases your risk of injury?

A recent large-scale study investigated the link between insomnia and the risk of injury both in the workplace and outside it. Researchers used data from the America Insomnia Survey, which interviewed more than 10,000 adults on details regarding insomnia and related health problems, both mental and physical. For the purposes of their own study, the researchers used data from a subset of the initial survey group, people who had serious and long-term insomnia. These people:

  • Had difficulty falling asleep or staying sleep, or had a habit of waking very early. These symptoms occurred at least 3 times per week
  • Experienced these episodes—of trouble with falling asleep or staying asleep, and/or waking early—for at least 30 minutes
  • Suffered from these insomnia-related symptoms for at least 12 months.

Insomnia is often associated with other health problems, and the survey provided information to researchers on other medical conditions, as well as medications taken. The list of health problems associated with insomnia is long, including heart problems, diabetes, arthritis, allergies and respiratory disorders, digestive problems, headaches, mental illnesses including depression, and other sleep disorders. 

The study also collected self-reported information on accidents and injuries that respondents had experienced in the previous 12 months. To be included in the current study’s analysis, injuries must have been serious enough to have caused impairment for one day and/or required medical attention.

All of the respondents included in the current research were employed, including people who were self-employed, and researchers divided injuries into two categories: work-related and non-work related, based on the information that respondents provided.

Among this sample that researchers created, the rate of insomnia was 20%. Younger and middle-aged people had higher rates than older people, and women had higher rates than men.

Researchers found that people with insomnia were much more likely to report injuries than respondents without insomnia. This was true for workplace injuries and non-workplace injuries. Respondents with insomnia were:

  • 1.9 times as likely to experience a workplace injury
  • 1.5 times as likely to suffer a non-workplace injury

The study also found that people with multiple health problems, including insomnia, were even more likely to experience some type of injury. There were several health problems associated with insomnia that researchers linked to an even greater risk of injury, both at work and away from it.

The conditions that most significantly predicted workplace injuries were:

  • Frequent or severe headaches
  • Chronic pain
  • Mental disorders (not including depression)
  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes

The conditions that most significantly predicted injuries outside the workplace were:

  • Frequent or severe headaches
  • Chronic back or neck pain
  • Neuropathic pain—pain or tenderness that can affect skin, muscles and joints all over the body
  • Chronic bronchitis or emphysema

Researchers found that insomnia, when present with two or more related health problems, was associated with an even greater risk of injury than with insomnia alone or insomnia in combination with a single additional health problem.

We know that working Americans aren’t sleeping enough. This recent study found that nearly 1/3 of US workers are sleeping less than 6 hours per night, significantly below the 7-8 hours nightly that is recommended. In addition to compromising health, performance, and quality of life, these latest results indicate that chronic insomnia also poses a safety risk.

What’s more, the cost of sleep-related workplace injuries are significant, stretching into the billions of dollars, according to studies conducted in the past decade. And these estimates don’t take into account the financial cost of sleep-related injuries that happen outside the workplace.

We tend to talk a lot about sleep-related safety issues when it comes to workers in high-risk, high-pressure jobs, where public safety is at stake: police, firefighters, doctors, and airline personnel. But as this study indicates, insomnia puts all of us at greater risk for accident and injury, as well as for other diseases.

Cost, health, quality of life, and now safety? Do we really need another reason to start paying closer attention to our sleep, and to getting treatment for insomnia and other sleep disorders?

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD 
The Sleep Doctor™

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