Applied Evidence

Insomnia diagnosis and treatment across the lifespan

Author and Disclosure Information

Insomnia impairs quality of life and is associated with an increased risk for physical and mental health problems and substance misuse. Here’s how you can help.


› Use a standard validated screening tool for the diagnosis of insomnia in all age groups. A

› Employ nonpharmacologic interventions as first-line treatment for insomnia in all populations. A

› Utilize sleep hygiene or cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia in adolescents and all adults. A

› Initiate independent cognitive or behavioral therapies with younger children. A

Strength of recommendation (SOR)

A Good-quality patient-oriented evidence
B Inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence
C Consensus, usual practice, opinion, disease-oriented evidence, case series



Insomnia disorder is common throughout the lifespan, affecting up to 22% of the population.1 Insomnia has a negative effect on patients’ quality of life and is associated with reported worse health-related quality of life, greater overall work impairment, and higher utilization of health care resources compared to patients without insomnia.2

Fortunately, many validated diagnostic tools are available to support physicians in the care of affected patients. In addition, many pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic treatment options exist. This review endeavors to help you refine the care you provide to patients across the lifespan by reviewing the evidence-based strategies for the diagnosis and treatment of insomnia in children, adolescents, and adults.


Defining insomnia

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) defines insomnia disorder as a predominant complaint of dissatisfaction with sleep quantity or quality, associated with 1 or more of the following3:

1. Difficulty initiating sleep. (In children, this may manifest as difficulty initiating sleep without caregiver intervention.)

2. Difficulty maintaining sleep, characterized by frequent awakenings or problems returning to sleep after awakenings. (In children, this may manifest as difficulty returning to sleep without caregiver intervention.)

3. Early-morning awakening with inability to return to sleep.

Sleep difficulty must be present for at least 3 months and must occur at least 3 nights per week to be classified as persistent insomnia.3 If symptoms last fewer than 3 months, insomnia is considered acute, which has a different DSM-5 code ("other specified insomnia disorder").3 Primary insomnia is its own diagnosis that cannot be defined by other sleep-wake ­cycle disorders, mental health conditions, or medical diagnoses that cause sleep disturbances, nor is it attributable to the physiologic effects of a substance (eg, substance use disorders, medication effects).3

Studies have shown that older adults who sleep fewer than 5 hours per night have an increased risk for diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

The International Classification of Sleep Disorders, 3rd edition (ICSD-3) notably consolidates all insomnia diagnoses (ie, “primary” and “comorbid”) under a single diagnosis (“chronic insomnia disorder”), which is a distinction from the DSM-5 diagnosis in terms of classification.4 Diagnosis of insomnia requires the presence of 3 criteria: (1) persistence of sleep difficulty, (2) adequate opportunity for sleep, and (3) associated daytime dysfunction.5

How insomnia affects specific patient populations

Children and adolescents. Appropriate screening, diagnosis, and interventions for insomnia in children and adolescents are associated with better health outcomes, including improved attention, behavior, learning, memory, emotional regulation, quality of life, and mental and physical health.6 In one study of insomnia in the pediatric population (N = 1038), 41% of parents reported symptoms of sleep disturbances in their children.7 Pediatric insomnia can lead to impaired attention, poor academic performance, and behavioral disturbances.7 In addition, there is a high prevalence of sleep disturbances in children with neurodevelopmental disorders.8

Insomnia is the most prevalent sleep disorder in adolescents but frequently goes unrecognized, and therefore is underdiagnosed and undertreated.9 Insomnia in adolescents is associated with depression and suicidality.9-12 Growing evidence also links it to anorexia nervosa,13 substance use disorders,14 and impaired neurocognitive function.15

Continue to: Pregnant women


Recommended Reading

Sleep-disordered breathing promotes elevated arterial stiffness and preeclampsia
MDedge Family Medicine
Serum trace metals relate to lower risk of sleep disorders
MDedge Family Medicine
Sleep complaints in major depression flag risk for other psychiatric disorders
MDedge Family Medicine
Will your smartphone be the next doctor’s office?
MDedge Family Medicine
The longevity gene: Healthy mutant reverses heart aging
MDedge Family Medicine