Defining the Different Types of Insomnia

Insomnia can take several forms. Here’s what you need to understand about the symptoms you are experiencing.

Defining the Different Types of Insomnia

Many people experience insomnia at some point in their lifetime, but insomnia can mean different things to different people.

In general, insomnia is a sleep disorder that causes people to have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting enough sleep. Here, we take a closer look at the different types of insomnia and the importance of seeing a healthcare provider when you aren’t getting enough sleep.

Acute vs. chronic
Insomnia can be categorized as acute or chronic, depending on how long a person has been experiencing symptoms:

Acute insomnia (also called short-term insomnia or adjustment insomnia) can last a few days up to a few weeks. It is more common in women and older adults. It is often caused by high levels of stress or disruptions to a normal schedule.

Chronic insomnia (also called long-term insomnia) occurs at least three times a week for at least three months and can continue indefinitely. Chronic insomnia is often a symptom of another medical condition or a side effect of a medication. Sometimes there may not be a direct cause, in which case the insomnia itself is considered the primary condition.

There are different types of insomnia that can be either acute or chronic.

Sleep-onset insomnia
This type occurs when you have difficulty falling asleep. You may be stressed or worried and unable to let your mind relax.

Sleep-onset insomnia can also occur when your body’s circadian rhythm (its natural sleep cycle) is interrupted due to jet lag or working irregular hours. It’s sometimes the result of delayed sleep-wake phase disorder (DSWPD), which happens when you are unable to fall asleep at your desired bedtime.

Sleep-maintenance insomnia

This type occurs when you have trouble staying asleep throughout the night or wake very early in the morning and are unable to fall back asleep (sometimes called early-morning awakening insomnia). This type is more common in older adults.

Sleep maintenance insomnia can also occur as a result of poor sleep habits—such as consuming too much caffeine or alcohol, using nicotine or drugs, lack of exercise, and using electronic devices around bedtime. It can also be caused by an irregular sleep schedule—for example, working late or waking up to care for a child during the night.

While these terms can help you understand your symptoms, sleep disturbances can overlap and change over time. Your symptoms may not fit within a specific definition.

Idiopathic insomnia
This is a type of insomnia with no identifiable cause. Behaviors, medications, habits, medical conditions, and stressors do not play a role. Researchers do not know why some people develop this type of insomnia, but it is thought to be abnormal functioning of the body’s sleep/wake systems.

Secondary insomnia
Also called comorbid insomnia, secondary insomnia refers to insomnia that is related to another health condition. Examples include anxiety, depression, substance abuse, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), restless leg syndrome, overactive bladder, and sleep apnea. Chronic pain from conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or neurological disorders can also make sleep difficult.

Sometimes, even when the primary issue is treated, insomnia can persist, and healthcare providers have come to see insomnia as a standalone condition that requires immediate treatment.

The importance of sleep
A lack of consistent, restful sleep can contribute to a number of health problems, including cardiovascular disease and obesity. Reduced sleep can make it difficult to concentrate at work and is a common cause of car accidents. Low quality of sleep can affect your mood and contribute to depression and anxiety.

Conversely, getting enough sleep is beneficial to your health. It helps your body regulate blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and maintain immunity. It’s associated with better memory, mood, and energy levels during the day.

In other words—getting a full night’s sleep is important to your physical and mental health. If you are struggling to get enough sleep, talk to your healthcare provider.

Medically reviewed in September 2021.

Sources:
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National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. "Insomnia."
Merck Manual Consumer Version. "Insomnia and Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS)."
Cleveland Clinic. "Delayed Sleep-Wake Phase Disorder (DSWPD) in Children and Adolescents."
Cleveland Clinic. "Insomnia and Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS)."
Eric Suni. "What Are the Different Types of Insomnia?" Sleep Foundation. June 24, 2021.
Lavinia Fiorentino and Jennifer L. Martin. "Awake at 4 a.m.: Treatment of Insomnia With Early Morning Awakenings Among Older Adults." Journal of Clinical Psychology, 2010. Vol. 66, No. 11.
Stanford Health Care. "Types of Insomnia."
American Psychological Association. "Why sleep is important."
SCL Health. "The Benefits of Getting a Full Night's Sleep."
Jenna Fletcher. "Why sleep is essential for health." MedicalNewsToday. May 31, 2019.
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