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Warding Off Sleep Issues After Brain Injury

A key component of recovery includes a good night’s sleep

By Paige Rusnock, Research Coordinator, Center for Traumatic Brain Injury Research

Sleep is essential to our mental and physical health. A key component of traumatic brain injury (TBI) recovery is a good night’s sleep, but unfortunately, individuals who have experienced TBI often report an increase in sleep issues.

Many different kinds of sleep disturbances can occur after TBI depending on which areas of the brain are affected. TBI can change the chemical mechanisms of the brain, and individuals with TBI may be unable to adequately start and stop the sleep cycle. In addition to altering natural sleep processes, pain stemming from the injury and commonly prescribed medications may prevent individuals with TBI from falling and staying asleep.

The most common sleep disorders reported after TBI include insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, inconsistent sleep patterns, and narcolepsy. Other common sleep syndromes are restless leg, bruxism, sleep apnea, periodic limb movement, and sleepwalking. The inability to concentrate due to fatigue, heightened anxiety, or deep depression from low-quality sleep can be detrimental to a person’s work and personal life.

Sleep is also extremely important for memory consolidation. Adequate sleep can enhance memory recall and motor memory, including recalling names and important dates as well as completing tasks such as buttoning shirts, tying shoes, and zipping jackets. A short, 45-minute nap during the day may heighten these motor skills as well.

After admission to a brain injury unit, the rehabilitation team includes sleep as part of the patient’s health and well-being. Team members track the patient’s sleep/wake cycle and develop a treatment plan to normalize that function. Treatment may also include administering medications to help the patient fall asleep at night and/or stay awake during the day to make it easier to participate in therapies and activities.

After discharge, adopting new habits can enhance a TBI survivor’s sleep pattern. A great place to start is by creating a routine that includes going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and sugar should be avoided five hours before bedtime. Exercise should be incorporated daily, but not within two hours of bedtime. Furthermore, phone and computer screens should be shut off at least 30 minutes before bedtime. If these suggestions don’t help regulate sleep patterns, a trusted physician may prescribe new medications or alter existing dosages or schedules to help improve the situation.

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