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Having Trouble Sleeping?

UPMC Content 2

Is there anything more frustrating than spending an entire night listening to the tick of the clock on your bedside table?

Restless nights sap people's vitality and zeal for life. Without enough rest, people become more forgetful, have difficulty concentrating, become more accident prone, and often feel irritable.

While youngsters seem to experience little difficulty sleeping, a solid eight hours of shut-eye can become a challenge as the years pass. The need for sleep doesn't change significantly, but the natural aging process, certain chronic conditions, and medications all can erode your chances of a good night's rest.

Why sleep becomes elusive

With aging, there's less slow-wave, deeper sleep, and older people are more likely to be awakened by noises in the environment.

According to the National Sleep Foundation a number of health problems can make sleeping difficult:

  • Pain
    People with arthritis may have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep because of painful joints. A 1996 Gallup Poll found that 30 percent of all nighttime pain sufferers experience arthritis pain at night. The number rises to 60 percent for those over age 50. If you suffer from arthritis, ask your doctor about treatment for the pain. In that same poll, back pain, headaches, muscular aches, leg cramps and sinus pain were also cited by those who had nighttime pain.
  • Heartburn
    Nighttime heartburn is marked by wheezing and chronic cough, with repeated awakenings and daytime sleepiness. Raising the head of the bed may alleviate symptoms, or medication may be needed.
  • Respiratory ailments
    Asthma, chronic interstitial lung disease, and various neuromuscular diseases can cause awakening. One study found that 74 percent of people with asthma were awakened from sleep in any given week.
  • Menopause
    The hot flashes and breathing changes associated with menopause appear to disturb sleep. In one study, hot flashes were associated with arousals once every eight minutes on average.
  • Medication
    Ask your doctor or pharmacist if your medications can cause insomnia or drowsiness, and if changing the time the drug is taken could help overcome these problems.
  • Chemical changes
    Production of the hormone melatonin, which influences sleep and wakefulness, decreases with age, just at the time when the likelihood of sleep disorders increases.

Sleep disorders


The National Center on Sleep Disorders Research estimates that more than 40 million Americans suffer from more than 80 different sleep disorders and don't know it. Some of the most common include:
  • Insomnia
    More than half of adults surveyed by the National Sleep Foundation complain of difficulty falling or staying asleep or waking too early.
  • Sleep apnea
    Noisy, irregular breathing can signal this treatable sleep disorder. In severe cases, the sleeper wakes several hundred times during the night due to a partial obstruction that temporarily blocks air flow.

Good sleep habits

  • Go to bed at the same time each night.
  • Reserve your bed for sleep and sex. Watch television or read in another room.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes, especially in the afternoon and evening.
  • Don't lie in bed watching the clock. If you can't fall asleep within half an hour, get up and listen to calming music or read.
  • Exercise 20 to 30 minutes at least three days a week—but not too close to bedtime.
  • Limit naps and don't nap longer than 30 minutes.
  • Take a walk outside during the day.
  • Sleep in a cool, quiet, dark room. Wear earplugs or eyeshades to block out light and sound.
  • Sleep on good bedding.
  • Limit drinking liquids a few hours before bedtime.
  • Don't go to bed hungry or overstuffed; both may cause physical discomfort.
  • Save scary movies, strenuous exercise, and serious family discussions for daytime.

Remember that sleep is a necessity, not a commodity. It's as much a part of overall health as good nutrition and regular exercise.

So don't settle for two to three hours per night. Draw yourself a bath, pour a glass of warm milk, crawl into a comfortable bed, don your earplugs, and turn off all the lights. You deserve it. And call your doctor if you need help.

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