From the Journals

Sleep problems linked to worsening PTSD in veterans



Insomnia is a common problem for veterans with PTSD, and the frequency of sleep problems is associated with increasing severity of PTSD, according to a study published in of the Journal of Traumatic Stress.

Raymond C. Rosen, PhD, of the New England Research Institutes, Watertown, Mass., and coauthors wrote that exploration of the relationship between PTSD and insomnia is complicated by the fact that it can be difficult to separate out disturbed sleep from other elements of PTSD, and because of the presence of other comorbidities in veterans, such as depression and traumatic brain injury.

The cohort study involved 1,643 veterans – roughly equal numbers of women and men – of Iraq and Afghanistan. Around two-thirds of the cohort had a diagnosis of PTSD. The participants completed a self-administered survey online or by mail, and were also assessed in a telephone interview, then followed up within 2-4 years.

While the prevalence of sleep problems was high across the cohort, the study found that 74% of participants with PTSD at baseline said they had experienced sleep difficulties for at least half of the previous 30 days, and one-third had been prescribed for a sedative-hypnotic drug in the past year.

In comparison, veterans without PTSD had fewer sleep problems and were prescribed significantly fewer sedative-hypnotic drugs.

The prevalence of sleep problems was similar in men and women with PTSD, although women had significantly higher rates of sedative-hypnotic prescriptions than men (40.4% vs. 35%, P = .006). A similar gender difference in prescription rates was seen in individuals without PTSD.

The study found that, although there was only a weak association between the severity of PTSD symptoms at baseline and the frequency of sleep problems at follow-up, there was a stronger association in reverse. Veterans with a higher frequency of sleep problems at baseline showed a significant increase in PTSD symptoms at follow-up.

The authors commented that this was in line with previous studies finding a similar effect of sleep disturbance on PTSD severity, both in military personnel and civilians.

“From a neurobiological perspective, it has been proposed that chronic sleep loss can lead to emotional dysregulation or heightened autonomic arousal, which in turn may be a risk factor for PTSD in trauma-exposed individuals,” they wrote. “It has also been proposed that prior sleep disturbance may attenuate the effects of extinction learning, leading to more enduring or severe symptoms in trauma-exposed individuals with concomitant sleep disorders.”

Given this association, the authors called for more attention to be given to identifying, diagnosing, and treating sleep disorders in veterans with and without PTSD.

The authors noted that they did not have access to polysomnographic data for participants, and were also unable to assess the prevalence, frequency, or intensity of nightmares in the cohort.

The study was supported by the Department of Defense. Conflict of interest disclosures were unavailable.

SOURCE: Rosen RC et al. J Trauma Stress. 2020;32:936-45.

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