Many people experience insomnia after surgery. This could be due to pain, anxiety, or disruptions in routine. The medications that doctors use during or after surgery may also contribute to sleeping difficulties.

Although quality sleep is important for healing and recovery, sleep disturbances are commonplace in the days and weeks following a surgical procedure.

This article explores insomnia after surgery, including its potential causes, symptoms, and treatment options.

A person wearing a leg brace lying awake in bed due to insomnia after surgery.Share on Pinterest
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Insomnia after surgery is common. People often develop significant sleep disturbances after surgery, especially major surgery.

The duration of insomnia after surgery can last anywhere from days to weeks. However, evidence suggests it is usually short term.

A 2022 longitudinal study used an electroencephalogram (EEG) to monitor insomnia following surgery. An EEG records brain activity while a person is sleeping.

The study showed that significant alterations in sleep patterns occurred during the first 6 nights after surgery and gradually returned to usual levels within the first week. This suggests that, for most people, sleep should start to improve around 1 week after the procedure.

However, insomnia is complex. It may persist for weeks or longer if other factors contribute to it.

There are various reasons why a person may experience insomnia after surgery. The following are some of the most common.

Being in the hospital

If a person is still in the hospital, their environment could be making it difficult to sleep. Hospital wards can be noisy, and being somewhere unfamiliar may make it difficult to relax.

Some people may also have additional discomforts, such as heart monitor probes on the chest, IV lines in the arm, or drainage tubes in a surgical wound. This can make it challenging to get comfortable.

People who require round-the-clock monitoring may experience disruptions, as medical staff may wake them regularly to check their blood pressure and temperature. They may also need to take medications or have tests at specific times of the day, which can further disturb sleep.

Inflammatory response

After surgery, the body responds with inflammation. This is part of the natural healing process for any injury, including surgical wounds.

However, surgeries can sometimes trigger extensive inflammation, affecting the entire body. This exaggerated response can disturb a person’s sleep.

Pain and discomfort

Pain is a major cause of insomnia. Pain can lengthen the time it takes to fall asleep, reduce time spent in deep sleep, and increase the frequency of waking up throughout the night. In turn, sleep disturbances can increase pain sensitivity and decrease pain threshold.

Medication side effects

Certain medications that doctors use during or after surgery may cause insomnia. General anesthesia allows surgeons to operate while controlling pain, movement, and awareness. But some people, particularly older adults, experience sleep disruptions due to its effects.

Other medications a person may take after surgery could also cause insomnia as a side effect.

Anxiety and stress

Surgery may contribute to anxiety, worry, or depression after the procedure. A person may find the experience frightening or stressful. They may also worry about their recovery after the operation or whether the surgery was successful.

This may make it more difficult for a person to relax and sleep. Sleep deprivation, in turn, can also affect someone’s mood, which may create a vicious circle.

There are many ways to help improve sleep after surgery. Firstly, if a person is still in the hospital, they or a caregiver can consider:

  • making sure the bed is comfortable
  • trying eye masks or ear plugs to block out noise and light
  • discussing pain management or temporary sleep aids with a doctor
  • discussing medications that could be worsening sleep with a doctor

After a person leaves the hospital, it may help to make changes to the sleep arrangements to reduce disruptions. This could involve:

  • keeping the sleeping area dark, cool, and quiet
  • using blackout blinds or curtains
  • using pillows to prop the body in a comfortable position
  • allowing the person to sleep by themselves, so they have more space to get comfortable
  • avoiding large meals late in the evening
  • going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day

If insomnia persists, it is important to discuss this with a doctor. They may be able to adjust a person’s medication or provide other support to help with sleep.

People should not change the dosage of any medication or start taking new sleep aids without discussing it with a doctor first. This could cause serious side effects.

A person should not take sleeping aids after surgery or any other time without consulting a doctor. Some medications, including over-the-counter sleep aids and natural supplements, can interact with anesthesia or other drugs. A doctor can confirm whether it is safe.

If a person typically takes sleeping pills, they should inform the doctor before surgery. Once the person is ready to go home, the doctor should provide instructions about when and how to take their sleeping aid.

Most cases of insomnia after surgery resolve on their own. However, if it persists beyond the first week, a person should contact a doctor. In some cases, insomnia can be due to an underlying condition that requires diagnosis and treatment.

A doctor may also recommend other treatments for insomnia, such as medications or lifestyle changes. They may also refer a person to a sleep specialist if insomnia persists.

Insomnia after surgery is common. There are many potential causes, including pain, medications, anxiety, and the unfamiliar environment of a hospital.

Several steps can help people sleep better, such as using noise-canceling earplugs, a sleep mask, or pillows to keep them comfortable. In most cases, insomnia after surgery will resolve on its own. However, people should speak to a doctor if it persists.