When do sleep troubles warrant a doctor’s visit?
“If it doesn't bother you, it doesn’t bother me,” Dr. Trevor Meaney said. “If it bothers you, it bothers me, and it’s probably time that you talk to a doctor.”
MITCHELL, S.D. — Stress, anxiety and daily diet are all important factors that play a role toward getting a healthy amount of restful sleep. Throw one of these out of balance, and it’s likely to cause short-term issues.
However, if a lack of restful sleep remains persistent, it can spark more detrimental health issues.
That’s why Dr. Trevor Meaney, medical director of occupational health and urgent care at Avera’s Grasslands clinic in Mitchell, South Dakota, suggests if sleep troubles bother you, it’s time to see a doctor.
“If it doesn't bother you, it doesn’t bother me,” Meaney said. “If it bothers you, it bothers me, and it’s probably time that you talk to a doctor.”
There are a whole host of issues that can contribute to difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, Meaney said, ranging from diagnosable mental or physical health conditions to controllable behaviors.
“The biggest one we look at is sleep apnea. The biggest thing is that it can cause daytime sleepiness or drowsiness, which can complicate a lot of things,” Meaney said. “People tend to fall asleep more when they're driving, even when they've gotten a good night of sleep.”
Sleep apnea is a medical condition that can cause individuals to stop breathing for short periods of time as they sleep, which can force them to wake up throughout the night.
“The other thing about sleep apnea is it affects the entire body. It can increase your blood pressure, it can increase the risk of heart failure with the heart because it affects the lungs,” Meaney said, explaining how not breathing properly while sleeping can deoxygenate your blood. “It can become more difficult for [the heart and lungs] to function how they’re supposed to, which would increase the pressure the heart has to work at.”
Using the COVID-19 pandemic as an example, Meaney said he’s heard of people who have had trouble falling or staying asleep since transitioning to an at-home lifestyle.
“Not being physically active also increases the feeling of having to sleep more," Meaney said. "When people are physically active, they actually sleep better and have more restorative sleep.”
For those who have caught COVID-19, the physical effects of the virus have also played a role.
“We still have people that are having trouble breathing, even long after [being infected with] COVID-19. They’re not comfortable enough sleeping at night, even to the point they’re congested,” Meaney said. “COVID is, for some people, minimal. In others, it’s months up to a year where they’re having issues.”
But it doesn’t take an illness or medical diagnosis to cause a disruption to your everyday life.
“Even a sore shoulder is a sleep problem. You’re tired enough to go to sleep, now you’re somewhat well-rested, but now your shoulder starts to ache,” Meaney said, noting that tossing and turning due to physical pain can decrease the quality of sleep. “It’s tough for you to cycle through the sleep process, you might wake up periodically.”
Some even need to use the bathroom throughout the night, causing them to break through their sleep and get out of bed, which can lead to a person being unprepared to take on the day.
“Restful sleep is so important to your health in many, many ways. A lot of our health depends on getting restful sleep. If you’re tired, then your ability to function at whatever level you want to function at is decreased,” Meaney said. “Psychiatric-wise, people tend to be more moody, have a shorter temper and just don’t feel more apt to deal with whatever situation they’re in at the time.”
College students who have a test or adults who have to work long shifts will find it more difficult to perform if they haven’t slept well enough, according to Meaney. However, not everyone needs to see a doctor to ensure they get the best sleep possible.
“The first thing you can do is maintain good sleep hygiene — go to sleep at the same time every night and get up in the morning at the same time every day. Exercise on a daily basis helps people’s bodies physically prepare themselves for sleep as well,” Meaney said.
Meaney suggests avoiding caffeine after noon, eating late-night meals and — though some have claimed it helps them sleep — alcohol before bed. If necessary, use a fan or white noise device to help you fall asleep.
“Some people can’t sleep without white noise, and they’re using it as that. I know people that turn a fan on all night long, just because they don’t want to hear traffic all night long,” Meaney said. “Some people do that with the TV or a mobile device. I’ve seen different studies go both ways.”
If all else fails, Meaney said using a medication, such as diphenhydramine or melatonin, can help if taken only as a short-term option to help correct a broken sleep schedule.
“A good night’s sleep is as important to health as anything else you can do. Try not to get too busy with whatever you do in your daily life that you don’t get that good night sleep, because that can affect the body, mind and soul,” Meaney concluded. “It can just affect everything. People are so much healthier when they get the proper sleep.”