Conference Coverage

Diagnosing insomnia takes time

Give new patients 1 hour, expert advises



– Clinicians should spend 1 hour with patients who present with a chief complaint of insomnia, rather than rushing to a treatment after a 10- to 15-minute office visit, according to John W. Winkelman, MD, PhD.

chief of the Masschusetts General Sleep Disorders Clinical Research Program Doug Brunk/MDedge News

Dr. John W. Winkelman

“Why? Because sleep problems are usually multifactorial, involving psychiatric illness, sleep disorders, medical illness, medication, and poor sleep hygiene/stress,” he said at an annual psychopharmacology update held by the Nevada Psychiatric Association. “There are usually many contributing problems, and sleep quality is only as strong as the weakest link. Maybe you don’t have an hour [to meet with new patients], but you need to give adequate time, otherwise you’re not going to do justice to the problem.”

During that first visit, Dr. Winkelman recommends establishing and prioritizing goals with the patient. “Ask, ‘what is it that bothers you most about your insomnia? Is it the time awake at night, your total sleep time, or how you feel during the day?’ Because we’re going to use different approaches based on that chief complaint of the insomnia,” said Dr. Winkelman, chief of the Massachusetts General Sleep Disorders Clinical Research Program in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Boston. “Cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia [CBT-I], for instance, is very good at reducing time awake at night. It won’t increase total sleep time, but it reduces time awake at night dramatically.”

According to the DSM-5, insomnia disorder is marked by dissatisfaction with sleep quality or quantity associated with at least one of the following: difficulty initiating sleep, difficulty maintaining sleep, and early morning awakening. “Just getting up to pee five times a night is not insomnia,” he said. “Just taking an hour and a half to fall asleep at the beginning of the night is not insomnia. There has to be distress or dysfunction related to the sleep disturbance, for a minimum of three times per week for 3 months.”

Most sleep problems are transient, but 25%-30% last more than 1 year. The differential diagnosis for chronic insomnia includes primary psychiatric disorders, medications, substances, restless legs syndrome, sleep schedule disorders, and obstructive sleep apnea.

“In general, we do not order sleep studies in people with insomnia unless we suspect sleep apnea; it’s just a waste of time,” said Dr. Winkelman, who is also a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Indications for polysomnography include loud snoring plus one of the following: daytime sleepiness, witnessed apneas, or refractory hypertension. Other indications include abnormal behaviors or movements during sleep, unexplained excessive daytime sleepiness, and refractory sleep complaints, especially repetitive brief awakenings.

Many common cognitive and behavioral issues can produce or worsen insomnia, including inconsistent bedtimes and wake times. “That irregular schedule wreaks havoc with sleep,” he said. “It messes up the circadian rhythm. Also, homeostatic drive needs to build up: We need to be awake 16 or more hours in order to be sleepy. If people are sleeping until noon on Sundays and then trying to go to bed at their usual time, 10 or 11 at night, they’ve only been awake 10 or 11 hours. That’s why they’re going to have problems falling asleep. Also, a lot of people doze off after dinner in front of the TV. That doesn’t help.”

Spending excessive time in bed can also trigger or worsen insomnia. Dr. Winkelman recommends that people restrict their access to bed to the number of hours it is reasonable to sleep. “I see a lot of people in their 70s and 80s spending 10 hours in bed,” he said. “It doesn’t sound that crazy, but there is no way they’re going to get 10 hours of sleep. It’s physically impossible, so they spend 2 or 3 hours awake at night.” Clock-watching is another no-no. “In the middle of the night you wake up, look at the clock, and say to yourself: ‘Oh my god, I’ve been awake for 3 hours. I have 4 hours left. I need 7 hours. That means I need to go to sleep now!’ ”

An estimated 30%-40% of people with chronic insomnia have a psychiatric disorder. That means “you have to be thorough in your evaluation and act as if you’re doing a structured interview,” Dr. Winkelman said. “Ask about obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, et cetera, so that you understand the complete myriad of psychiatric illnesses, because psychiatric illnesses run in gangs. Comorbidity is generally the rule.”

The first-line treatment for chronic insomnia disorder is CBT-I, a multicomponent approach that includes time-in-bed restriction, stimulus control, cognitive therapy, relaxation therapy, and sleep hygiene. According to Dr. Winkelman, the cornerstone of CBT-I is time-in-bed restriction. “Many people with insomnia are spending 8.5 hours in bed to get 6.5 hours of sleep,” he said. “What you do is restrict access to bed to 6.5 hours; you initially sleep deprive them. Over the first few weeks, they hate you. After a few weeks when they start sleeping well, you start gradually increasing time in bed, but they rarely get back to the 8.5 hours in bed they were spending beforehand.”

Online CBT-I programs such as Sleepio can also be effective for improving sleep latency and wake after sleep onset, but not for total sleep time (JAMA Psychiatry. 2017;74[1]:68-75). “Not everybody responds to CBT; 50% don’t respond at a couple of months,” he said. “These are the people you need to think about medication for.”

Medications commonly used for chronic insomnia include benzodiazepine receptor agonists (BzRAs) – temazepam, eszopiclone, triazolam, zolpidem, and zaleplon are Food and Drug Administration approved – melatonin agonists, orexin antagonists, sedating antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and dopaminergic antagonists. “Each of the agents in these categories has somewhat similar mechanisms of action, and similar efficacy and contraindications,” Dr. Winkelman said. “The best way to divide the benzodiazepine receptor agonists is based on half-life. How long do you want drug on receptor in somebody with insomnia? Probably not much longer than 8 hours. Nevertheless, some psychiatrists love clonazepam, which has a 40-hour half-life. The circumstances under which clonazepam should be used for insomnia are small, such as in people with a daytime anxiety disorder.”

Consider trying triazolam, zolpidem, and zaleplon for patients who have problems falling asleep, he said, while oxazepam and eszopiclone are sensible options for people who have difficulty falling and staying asleep. Clinical response to BzRAs is common, yet only about half of people who have insomnia remit with one of these agents.

Dr. Winkelman said that patients and physicians often ask him whether BzRAs and other agents used as sleep aids are addictive. Abuse is identified when recurrent use causes clinically and functionally significant impairment, such as health problems; disability; and failure to meet major responsibilities at work, home, or school. “These are concerns with BzRAs. Misuse and abuse generally occur in younger people. Once you get to 35 years old, misuse rates get very low. In older people, rates of side effects go up.

“Tolerance, physiological and psychological dependence, and nonmedical diversion are also of concern,” he said. However, for the majority of people, BzRA hypnotics are effective and safe.

As for other agents, meta-analyses have demonstrated that melatonin 1-3 mg can help people fall asleep when it’s not being endogenously released. “That’s during the day,” he said. “That might be most relevant for jet lag and for people doing shift work.” Two orexin antagonists on the market for insomnia include suvorexant and lemborexant 10-20 mg. Advantages of these include little abuse liability and few side effects. “In one head-to-head polysomnography study in the elderly, lemborexant was superior to zolpidem 6.25 mg CR on both objective and subjective ability to fall asleep and stay asleep,” Dr. Winkelman said. (JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2[12]:e1918254).

Antidepressants are another treatment option, including mirtazapine 15-30 mg, trazodone 25-100 mg, and amitriptyline and doxepin (10-50 mg). Advantages include little abuse liability, while potential drawbacks include daytime sedation, weight gain, and anticholinergic side effects. Meanwhile, atypical antipsychotics such as quetiapine 25-100 mg have long been known to be helpful for sleep. “Advantages are that they’re anxiolytic, they’re mood stabilizing, and there is little abuse liability,” Dr. Winkelman said. “Drawbacks are that they’re probably less effective than BzRAs, they cause daytime sedation, weight gain, risks of extrapyramidal symptoms and glucose and lipid abnormalities.”

Dr. Winkelman said that he uses “a fair amount” of the anticonvulsant gabapentin as a second- or third-line hypnotic agent. “I usually start with 300 mg [at bedtime],” he added. “Drawbacks are that it’s probably less effective than BzRAs; it affects cognition; and can cause daytime sedation, dizziness, and weight gain. There are also concerns about abuse.”

Dr. Winkelman reported that he has received grant/research support from Merck, the RLS Foundation, and Luitpold Pharmaceuticals. He is also a consultant for Advance Medical, Avadel Pharmaceuticals, and UpToDate and is a member of the speakers’ bureau for Luitpold.

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