Contrary to popular beliefs, insomnia is often a chronic problem and does not necessarily remit by itself, the results of a long-term study published today indicate. This is especially true for people whose insomnia is severe from the beginning.

"Although people who experience insomnia for a few nights do not need to worry about it, when the sleep problem persists for some time (more than 1 month), they should not take it too lightly...and should seek treatment because it may not go away by itself," Dr. Charles M. Morin, Director of the Sleep Research Center, Laval University, Quebec City, told Reuters Health.

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Over 3 years, Morin and colleagues studied the natural history of insomnia in 388 people with varying degrees of insomnia at the start of the study.

The researchers report in the Archives of Internal Medicine that although the course of insomnia can fluctuate over time, with periods of remission and relapse, the most common course was persistent insomnia.

"Nearly half of the sample (46 percent) reported persistent insomnia at all time points during the 3-year study, and 74 percent reported insomnia persisting for at least 1 year," the investigators wrote.

Chronic untreated insomnia has been linked to higher health care costs, lost work days, disability, as well as high blood pressure, depression and drug and alcohol abuse. "With chronic insomnia, there is also increased risk for chronic use of hypnotic medications," Morin noted.

Yet most insomniacs suffer in silence, never talking about their sleepless nights with their doctor. This is a mistake, Morin said. Insomnia sufferers should talk to their doctor about the problem and doctors "should not ignore their patients' insomnia complaints - even if it isn't the primary complaint - or assume that such complaint will resolve with time," Morin told Reuters Health.

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The researcher also emphasized that treatment for insomnia "does not necessarily need to involve medications; it may simply require behavioral recommendations about sleep schedules and better sleep hygiene."