Diagnosis and Management of Sleep Disorders in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Review of the Literature

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Objective: International and societal conflicts and natural disasters can leave physical and mental scars in people who are directly affected by these traumatic experiences. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the clinical manifestation of these experiences in the form of re-experiencing the trauma, avoidance of trauma-related stimuli, and persistent symptoms of hyperarousal. There is growing evidence that sleep disruption that occurs following trauma exposure may in fact contribute to the pathophysiology of PTSD and poor clinical outcomes. The purpose of this review is to highlight the importance of recognition and management of sleep disorders in patients with PTSD.

Data Sources: English-language, adult research studies published between 1985 and April 2014 were identified via the PubMed database. The search terms used were PTSD AND sleep disorders.

Study Selection: The search identified 792 original and review articles. Of these, 53 articles that discussed or researched sleep disorders in PTSD were selected. Fourteen randomized controlled trials of therapy for PTSD are included in this review.

Results: Impaired sleep is a common complaint mainly in the form of nightmares and insomnia among people with PTSD. Sleep apnea and periodic limb movement disorder are particularly prevalent in patients with PTSD and, yet, remain unrecognized. Although selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are effective in improving PTSD global symptoms, they have a variable and modest effect on sleep disorder symptoms. Cognitive-behavioral treatment targeted to sleep and/or the use of the centrally acting selective α1 antagonist prazosin have been more successful in treating insomnia and nightmares in PTSD than other classes of medications. In view of the high occurrence of sleep apnea and periodic leg movement disorder, a thorough sleep evaluation and treatment are warranted.

Conclusions: Patients with PTSD have a high prevalence of sleep disorders and should be queried for insomnia, nightmares, periodic limb movement disorder, and sleep-disordered breathing.

Prim Care Companion CNS Disord 2014;16(6):doi:10.4088/PCC.14r01663