Hospitals are too loud, and patients' sleep could be suffering because of it, suggests a new study.
According to World Health Organization recommendations, noise in hospital rooms generally shouldn't get above 30 to 40 decibels. But researchers at one hospital reported that the average noise level in patients' rooms was close to 50 decibels, and sometimes spiked as high as 80 decibels—almost as loud as a chainsaw, they said.
"The hospital environment is certainly not a restful environment," said Dr. Vineet Arora, from the University of Chicago.
In a study of about 100 adult patients at their medical center, she and her colleagues found that noise levels in patients' rooms at night tended to be lower than during the day, but almost always exceeded recommendations for average and maximum noise level.
Much of that extra noise was due to talking between doctors and nurses, but the loudest interruptions were likely from alarms and intercoms, Arora said.
Higher maximum noise levels in individual rooms were linked to sleep disruptions in their occupants.
In general, patients slept over an hour less in the hospital than they'd reported sleeping at home, and often had restless, poor-quality sleep, Arora and her colleagues reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
"One of the most common complaints that patients will report is that they had a difficult night sleeping," she told Reuters Health—and that could delay their recovery.
"It could be part of a cycle of: you're sick, you get bad sleep, and you're not able to get better as quickly," Arora said.
Dr. Sairam Parthasarathy, who studies patient sleep at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said that noise on the hospital ward may not be fully to blame for patients' sleep troubles.
For example, more noise in a room could be a reflection of more nurses having to come in and out, checking on patients or giving them medication—indicating that they may be sicker than those who have less-noisy rooms.
"There's no doubt that the hospital environment is noisy, and there's no doubt that patients sleep badly in the hospital," said Dr. Patrick Hanly, from the Foothills Sleep Centre and the University of Calgary, in Alberta.
"The trouble is, people are generally in the hospital because they're sick, and that itself is going to disrupt their sleep," added Hanly.
"That doesn't mean that... noise is not a factor—noise is certainly a factor," said Parthasarathy, who along with Hanly was not involved in the new research.
Parthasarathy suggested that patients keep their blinds open during the day to get natural sunlight, wear noise-cancelling headphones if sound on the ward is disturbing them and walk around during the day if they're physically able.
Patients and their families can also ask doctors to close their room doors when they leave, Arora said, as well as advocate for other, small changes in their environment that could help them sleep more soundly.