Imagine coming home from a long deployment. You’re anxious to see your family and friends. You also can’t wait to sleep in your own bed. But for a lot of veterans, sleep doesn’t come easily at all, even after they return home.
Sometimes, sleep problems can be attributed to health issues, such as injuries, that have already been diagnosed. In other cases, sleep problems might come to light alongside other emerging health issues for veterans.
Here are 5 conditions that can result in sleep problems for veterans:
PTSD. Most of us have probably heard about the frequency of PTSD in veterans. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a complex condition that often combines physical, mental and emotional symptoms, including:
- flashbacks and intense, intrusive memories of traumatic events
- hyper-alertness and a sense of ever-present danger
- trouble concentrating
- Depression and anxiety
Trouble sleeping is very common among veterans (and non-vets) with PTSD. Research tells us that more than 90 percent of people with PTSD also have sleep problems. Veterans who have PTSD often have nightmares and have high rates of insomnia. Sleep-disordered breathing (which includes conditions like snoring and sleep apnea) is much more common in people with PTSD, according to several studies.
Chronic stress. The conditions of military service—including combat, separation from family, and the transition back to civilian life—can lead to chronic stress for active-service military members and veterans. This ongoing stress may not take the form of PTSD. But persistent stress can lead to insomnia and sleep deprivation, and restless sleep. Stress and sleep often work together in a difficult cycle: less sleep makes stress worse, and higher levels of stress further erode sleep.
Physical pain. Injuries are one source of ongoing pain for veterans. But so are headaches, and chronic conditions like arthritis and lower back pain. Research shows that nearly 30 percent of U.S. vets who seek healthcare treatment are experiencing at least a moderate amount of chronic pain. Pain interferes with sleep. Similar to stress, pain and sleep have what sleep experts call a “bi-directional” relationship. That means pain makes it harder to sleep—and not getting enough sleep makes it harder to tolerate pain.
Medication and substance use. Alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine all can interfere with sleep, especially when used heavily or near to bedtime. Many medications, including pain relievers and anti-depressants, have sleep-disrupting side effects. Misuse of prescribed drugs and use of illegal drugs can create an array of mental and physical health problems, which include problems with sleep.
Tinnitus. This one might surprise you. But tinnitus is actually the most common service-related disability among veterans. (It also affects about 10 percent of the general population.) Tinnitus is the perception of sound in the ears or the head, when there’s no external sound present. Tinnitus can make it harder to fall asleep—scientists have linked tinnitus to insomnia, showing that lack of sleep can also make tinnitus harder to cope with.
Veterans may be more vulnerable to these health problems than the general population, but none of these health issues are exclusive to vets. Anyone of us who copes with these conditions may be more at risk for sleep problems.
Veterans and their families needing help can contact the Veterans Crisis Line by phone, text or online chat.
Written by Caitlin Reynolds