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Home > Healthy Living > Health Library > Sleep Disorders (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Sleep disturbances occur in about 10% to 15% of the general population  and are often associated with situational stress, illness, aging, and drug treatment. It is estimated that one-third to one-half of people with cancer experience sleep disturbance.[3,4] Physical illness, pain, hospitalization, drugs and other treatments for cancer, and the psychological impact of a malignant disease may disrupt the sleeping patterns of persons with cancer. Poor sleep adversely affects daytime mood and performance. In the general population, persistent insomnia has been associated with a higher risk of developing clinical anxiety or depression. Sleep disturbances and, ultimately, sleep-wake cycle reversals can be early signs of a developing delirium. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Delirium for more information.) Adequate sleep may increase the cancer patient's pain tolerance.
Sleep consists of two phases: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM (NREM) sleep. REM sleep, also known as dream sleep, is the active or paradoxic phase of sleep in which the brain is active. NREM sleep is the quiet or restful phase of sleep. NREM, also referred to as slow wave sleep, is divided into four stages of progressively deepening sleep based on electroencephalogram findings.
The stages of sleep occur in a repeated pattern or cycle of NREM followed by REM, with each cycle lasting approximately 90 minutes. The sleep cycle is repeated four to six times during a 7- to 8-hour sleep period. The sleep-wake cycle is dictated by an inherent biological clock or circadian rhythm. Disruptions in individual sleep patterns can disrupt the circadian rhythm and impair the sleep cycle.
Five major categories of sleep disorders have been defined by the Sleep Disorders Classification Committee of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine:
In this summary, unless otherwise stated, evidence and practice issues as they relate to adults are discussed. The evidence and application to practice related to children may differ significantly from information related to adults. When specific information about the care of children is available, it is summarized under its own heading.
Cancer patients are at great risk of developing insomnia and disorders of the sleep-wake cycle. Insomnia is the most common sleep disturbance in this population and is most often secondary to physical and/or psychological factors related to cancer and/or cancer treatment.[1,2,3,4,5] Anxiety and depression—common psychological responses to the diagnosis of cancer, cancer treatment, and hospitalization—are highly correlated with insomnia.[6,7];[Level of evidence: II]
Sleep disturbances may be exacerbated by paraneoplastic syndromes associated with steroid production and by symptoms associated with tumor invasion, such as draining lesions, gastrointestinal (GI) and genitourinary (GU) alterations, pain, fever, cough, dyspnea, pruritus, and fatigue. Medications—including vitamins, corticosteroids, neuroleptics for nausea and vomiting, and sympathomimetics for the treatment of dyspnea—as well as other treatment factors can negatively impact sleep patterns.
Side effects of treatment that may affect the sleep-wake cycle include the following:;[Level of evidence: II]
Sustained use of the following can cause insomnia:
In addition, withdrawal from the following substances may cause insomnia:
Hypnotics can interfere with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, resulting in increased irritability, apathy, and diminished mental alertness. Abrupt withdrawal of hypnotics and sedatives may lead to symptoms such as nervousness, jitteriness, seizures, and REM rebound. REM rebound has been defined as a marked increase in REM sleep with increased frequency and intensity of dreaming, including nightmares. The increased physiologic arousal that occurs during REM rebound may be dangerous for patients with peptic ulcers or a history of cardiovascular problems. Newer medications for insomnia have reduced adverse effects.
The sleep of hospitalized patients is likely to be frequently interrupted by treatment schedules, hospital routines, and roommates, which singularly or collectively alter the sleep-wake cycle. Other factors influencing sleep-wake cycles in the hospital setting include patient age, comfort, pain, and anxiety; and environmental noise and temperature.
Consequences of sleep disturbances can influence outcomes of therapeutic and supportive care measures. The patient with mild to moderate sleep disturbances may experience irritability and inability to concentrate, which may in turn affect the patient's compliance with treatment protocols, ability to make decisions, and relationships with significant others. Depression and anxiety can also be caused by sleep disturbances. Supportive care measures are directed toward promoting quality of life and adequate rest.
Assessment is the initial step in management strategies. Assessment data should include documentation of predisposing factors, sleep patterns, emotional status, exercise and activity levels, diet, symptoms, medications, and caregiver routines. The sections below outline recommendations for a sleep history and physical examination. Data can be retrieved from multiple sources: the patient's subjective report of sleep difficulty, objective observations of behavioral and physiologic manifestations of sleep disturbances, and reports from the patient's significant others regarding the patient's quality of sleep. Use of the Insomnia Severity Index is suggested to screen for insomnia in clinical settings.[3,4]
The diagnosis of insomnia is primarily based on a careful, detailed medical and psychiatric history. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has produced guidelines for the use of polysomnography as an objective tool in evaluating insomnia. The routine polysomnogram includes the monitoring of electroencephalography, electro-oculography, electromyography, effort of breathing and air flow, oxygen saturation, electrocardiography, and body position. Polysomnography is the major diagnostic tool in sleep disorders and is indicated in the evaluation of suspected sleep-related breathing disorders and periodic limb movement disorder, and when the cause of insomnia is uncertain or when behavioral or pharmacologic therapy is unsuccessful.[Level of evidence: IV]
Sleep disturbance has been shown to change throughout the cancer trajectory, which supports the need to assess sleep throughout the patient's cancer experience. One descriptive study [Level of evidence: II] involving 398 women with breast cancer used the General Sleep Disturbance Scale (GSDS) to identify three different sleep trajectories when self-reported sleep was evaluated beginning before surgery and continuing for 6 months. One group (55% of the sample) had a high level of sleep disturbance throughout the study, defined as scores on the GSDS of around 58 to 60 at all data points. A second group (40% of the sample) was considered to have a low level of sleep disturbance throughout, defined as scores on the GSDS in the low 30s at each data point. The final group (5% of the sample) started out high with scores around 62, but their scores decreased to below 30 over the first 4 months and remained there through month 6. Women in the group who were identified as having a more severe sleep disorder were significantly younger, had more comorbidities, had a lower performance status, and experienced hot flashes.
Risk Factors for Sleep Disorders
Characterization of Sleep
Management of sleep disturbances should focus on treatment of problems with falling asleep, staying asleep, or early morning awakenings. Other areas to manage include symptoms from cancer and its treatment, and the identification and management of environmental and psychological factors. When sleep disturbances are caused by symptoms of cancer or treatment, measures that control or alleviate symptoms are often the key to resolving sleep disturbances. Management of sleep disturbances combines nonpharmacologic and pharmacologic approaches individualized for the patient.
Nonpharmacologic Management of Sleep Disturbances
Many people who experience insomnia have been found to practice poor sleep hygiene (such as smoking and drinking excessive alcohol just before bedtime), which can exacerbate or perpetuate insomnia.[Level of evidence: III] Therefore, a complete assessment of sleep hygiene (i.e., time in bed; napping during the day; intake of caffeine, alcohol, or foods that are heavy, spicy, or sugary; exercise; and sleep environment) and use of behavioral management strategies (i.e., fixed bedtime; restrictions on smoking, diet, and excessive alcohol 4–6 hours before bedtime; and increased exercise) may prove effective in reducing sleep disturbance.
Sleep hygiene in an inpatient setting involves modifying the sleep environment to decrease sleep disruption. Minimizing noise, dimming or turning off lights, adjusting room temperature, and consolidating patient care tasks to reduce the number of interruptions can increase the amount of uninterrupted sleep.[Level of evidence: IV]
Cognitive strategies include restructuring negative thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes related to sleep and preventing excessive monitoring or worrying about getting enough sleep. Behavioral strategies include stimulus control and sleep restriction. Both of these strategies seek to limit the time spent in bed that does not involve sleeping.[3,4,5] Several large, randomized trials and meta-analyses provide the evidence base for the efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for insomnia (CBT-I).[3,6,7] Most of these trials have been in populations of patients without cancer. Components of CBT-I include the following:
Relaxation therapy can be used to achieve both behavioral and cognitive outcomes, particularly when it is combined with imagery. Educational objectives around sleep hygiene are also used to treat insomnia and include content on the following:
Practice guidelines from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine clearly state that multicomponent therapy is recommended over single therapies. Because of insufficient evidence about its efficacy, sleep hygiene education should not be recommended as a single-modality management approach; other reviews state that sleep hygiene by itself is not effective.[6,8] Information about sleep hygiene, although not sufficient alone to combat sleep disturbances, should be included as a foundation of education related to sleep issues.
Several trials and meta-analyses have shown CBT-I to be at least as effective as conventional pharmacological therapies in treating primary chronic insomnia but without side effects.[6,7,9,10,11]
A four-arm study (conducted in patients with primary chronic insomnia) that evaluated zolpidem versus CBT versus zolpidem and CBT versus placebo reported a greater effect (P = .05) on sleep-onset latency for both groups involving CBT (change of 44%) versus the group receiving zolpidem alone (change of 29%). Another study, also conducted in patients with primary chronic insomnia, evaluated CBT with temazepam alone versus a combination of CBT and temazepam versus placebo and found that all active treatments were significantly better than placebo and that there was a trend for the most improvement in the combined arm of CBT and temazepam. Both arms with CBT demonstrated greater reductions in time to sleep onset than did the pharmacotherapy-alone arm (64% combined arm, 55% CBT arm, and 47% temazepam arm). A meta-analysis examining pharmacologic and behavioral studies for persistent insomnia found that pharmacologic and behavioral treatments did not differ in magnitude of benefit except for latency to sleep onset, in which greater reductions were found with behavioral therapy.
There are limited data evaluating elements of CBT-I in cancer survivors, and most of the data that exist are about women with breast cancer. However, there have been at least four randomized controlled trials of CBT-I in cancer survivors.[14,15,16,17] The intervention was typically delivered over 5 to 8 weekly, small-group, in-person sessions. One of these trials included patients with cancer diagnoses other than breast cancer, and results did not differ by cancer diagnosis. All studies showed improvements in numerous sleep parameters over time in the groups receiving CBT-I and demonstrated continued benefits 6 and 12 months later. Two of the four trials did not use active control arms.[14,16]
Studies using active control arms were in breast cancer survivors. One study compared CBT-I with sleep education and hygiene in 72 women, while the other study used a healthy-eating education control group. In the study comparing CBT-I with sleep education and hygiene, both groups significantly improved over time, with some significant differences between groups favoring CBT-I for time to fall asleep, time awake after sleep, total sleep time, and overall sleep quality. For example, the group receiving CBT-I improved by 30 minutes in time to fall asleep, compared with 11 minutes in the sleep education and hygiene group.
In the study utilizing the healthy-eating education control, 219 women were randomly assigned to a behavioral therapy group consisting of stimulus control, general sleep hygiene (limiting naps, going to bed and rising at consistent times), and relaxation or to a healthy-eating education control group. The interventions were delivered by trained nurses in person, 2 days before the initiation of chemotherapy and before each chemotherapy treatment and 30 days after the last chemotherapy treatment. The nurses worked with women assigned to behavioral therapy to individualize and reinforce the behaviors. The Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) was used to measure subjective sleep quality but was complemented by use of a sleep diary and wrist actigraph. Sleep quality significantly improved in the group receiving behavioral therapy, compared with the control group. These differences were also seen in data from the sleep diary and actigraph, with both showing significantly fewer awakenings in the behavioral therapy group. Sleep quality was significantly better at 90 days and at 1 year in the behavioral therapy group, as measured by the PSQI but not the diary or actigraph.
In some places, patients may not have access to in-person, professionally delivered CBT-I because of limited resources. A randomized controlled trial conducted with breast cancer survivors demonstrated that CBT-I delivered via digital media can also produce meaningful clinical improvements, although improvements are not as robust as those produced with professionally delivered CBT-I. This three-armed trial compared video-based CBT-I (VCBT-I) and professionally delivered CBT-I (PCBT-I) with a no-treatment control group in 242 breast cancer survivors. Both the VCBT-I and PCBT-I groups were associated with significantly greater improvements in diary-measured sleep variables, compared with the control group. The patients in the PCBT-I group reported greater improvements in some sleep outcomes and in fatigue and depression levels than did the VCBT-I group.
Inpatient nonpharmacologic management
CBT delivered by psychologists has shown promise for the treatment of insomnia in patients with cancer.[Level of evidence: I] A randomized controlled study investigated the effectiveness of a protocol-driven cognitive behavioral intervention for insomnia delivered by oncology nurses.[Level of evidence: I] This group intervention consisted of standard CBT components such as stimulus control and sleep restriction. Participants included patients with heterogeneous cancers randomly assigned to receive the intervention (n = 100) or treatment as usual (n = 50). Primary outcomes were sleep diary measures at baseline, posttreatment, and at 6-month follow-up. CBT was associated with significant and sustained improvements in several sleep aspects. These improvements were seen for both subjective (sleep diary) and objective (actigraphy) assessments. Additionally, CBT patients showed significant improvements in fatigue, anxiety, and depressive symptoms and reported improved quality of life, compared with patients who received treatment as usual.[Level of evidence: I]
A study conducted in cancer survivors demonstrated the benefits of a specialized yoga program to improve sleep quality and reduce medication use. A total of 410 cancer survivors with moderate to severe sleep disturbances were randomly assigned to receive standard care or standard care plus a 4-week yoga intervention delivered in two weekly sessions by trained yoga instructors. The yoga participants showed significant improvement in sleep quality, daytime dysfunction, nighttime awakening, and sleep efficiency, compared with standard-care participants. Two major limitations of this study were its limited population generalizability, as most study participants were female, white, married, and well-educated breast cancer survivors; and the lack of an adequate control group with respect to nonspecific effects such as group support and attention.
Other actions or interventions that may promote rest in the hospital or extended-care setting include the following:[21,22]
Psychological interventions are directed toward facilitating the patient's coping processes through education, support, and reassurance. As the patient learns to cope with the stresses of illness, hospitalization, and treatment, sleep may improve.[Level of evidence: IV] Communication, verbalization of concerns, and openness between the patient, family, and health care team should be encouraged. Relaxation exercises and self-hypnosis performed at bedtime can help promote calm and sleep. Cognitive-behavioral interventions that diminish the distress associated with early insomnia and change the goal from "need to sleep" to "just relax" can diminish anxiety and promote sleep.
Pharmacologic Management of Sleep-Wake Cycle Disturbances
When cancer survivors experience sleep-wake disturbances, cognitive behavioral intervention counseling should be the first consideration for management. (Refer to the Nonpharmacologic Management of Sleep Disturbances section of this summary for more information.) It is acknowledged that resources for education and training in CBT may not be readily available in many cancer centers, and therefore community resources need to be investigated. In areas where CBT is not available or has been utilized but has not been successful, pharmacologic management can be considered. In addition, when patients have comorbidities contributing to sleep-wake cycle disturbances (such as hot flashes, uncontrolled pain, anxiety, depression, or other mood disturbances),[25,26] then pharmacologic management will probably be necessary. While many pharmacologic agents are approved for primary insomnia and many other agents are used off-label to manage sleep and related symptoms, most of the approved sleep aids have not been studied in cancer populations; therefore, the risk/benefit profiles of these drugs are not delineated in this setting.
Despite the lack of evidence in cancer populations, pharmacologic interventions are widely used by clinicians. Therefore, the following discussion of pharmacologic agents and recommendations for use is based on evidence from studies conducted in patients with primary insomnia and clinical experience.[4,27,28]
Several classes of medications are used to treat sleep-wake cycle disturbances:
Drug characteristics that should be taken into account before a drug is chosen to treat an individual patient include the following:
These pharmacokinetic principles are important for the matching of agents to the type of sleep disturbance (e.g., problems falling asleep versus problems staying asleep). There are also safety issues to be considered, such as potentials for tolerance, abuse, dependence, withdrawal (including risk of rebound insomnia), and drug-drug and drug-disease interactions. Medications for sleep-wake cycle disturbances should be used short-term and/or as needed.
General considerations for the use of hypnotics
Medications used to induce sleep are intended for the short-term management of sleep disorders. The use of these medications for longer periods is poorly studied. They are usually combined with lifestyle changes that will reinforce good sleep habits and negate the need for chronic hypnotic medications.
Most research studies of current and historic hypnotic medications rarely exceed a duration of 12 to 16 weeks of study. Additionally, none of the current hypnotics re-create normal sleep architecture, and variations from normal periods of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep are common. It is important to taper hypnotic medications slowly, or the variations in normal sleep patterns can become even more pronounced, with the majority of time spent in REM sleep in a condition known as REM rebound.[29,30]
Table 2 lists the drug categories and specific medications, including doses, commonly used within those categories.
Nonbenzodiazepine benzodiazepine receptor agonists
All agents in this class are FDA approved for primary insomnia. These agents promote sleep by enhancing the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) at the GABA type A (GABAA) receptor. Unlike traditional benzodiazepines (e.g., lorazepam), these agents preferentially target specific GABAA receptor subtypes. Zolpidem and zaleplon bind predominantly to the alpha-1 subtype of GABAA, and eszopiclone preferentially targets the alpha-3 receptor subtype. This selective receptor subtype targeting has both advantages and disadvantages. These agents have mainly hypnotic/sedative effects and lack the anxiolytic, anticonvulsant, and myorelaxant effects seen with benzodiazepines. Conversely, because of the selective receptor subtype targeting, these agents have fewer effects on cognitive, psychomotor function and carry less risk of tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal (especially physical withdrawal) than do benzodiazepines.[4,27,28]
These agents may be preferred for use in patients with cancer, when only hypnotic effects are desired, and should be taken just before bedtime (or even in bed) because they enter the brain very quickly; some of these agents (e.g., zaleplon) have a short elimination half-life. Because of their longer-lasting effects, zolpidem extended-release and eszopiclone are preferred in the treatment of difficulties in staying asleep. However, these agents carry a higher risk of residual morning sedation and cognitive/motor impairments than do agents with shorter elimination half-lives (e.g., zaleplon and immediate-release zolpidem).
Benzodiazepines target several GABAA receptor subtypes, including alpha-1, -2, -3, and -5, and work by enhancing GABA effects at these receptors. In addition to hypnotic/sedative effects, these agents also have anxiolytic, anticonvulsant, and myorelaxant effects. Benzodiazepines are preferred when other effects (such as antianxiety or muscle relaxant effects) are desirable with or without the hypnotic effects.[4,27,28]
Benzodiazepines carry a much higher risk of tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal than do the nonbenzodiazepine receptor agonists. Benzodiazepine withdrawal has been associated with the risk of seizures, delirium tremens, autonomic instability, and death. These agents should be used with extreme caution and with close monitoring in patients with histories of significant substance use because these patients are vulnerable to tolerance and dependence issues. Benzodiazepines have also been associated with cognitive impairment and difficulties with motor coordination.
Generally, benzodiazepines with longer half-lives (e.g., clonazepam) are associated with a higher risk of residual morning sedation and cognitive/motor impairments. Agents with shorter elimination half-lives (e.g., lorazepam) are generally preferred for short-term anxiolytic effects and difficulties falling asleep and in elderly patients. Agents with longer half-lives (e.g., clonazepam) are preferred for the treatment of persistent anxiety and difficulties falling and staying asleep. All benzodiazepines are associated with risk of respiratory depression and should be used with caution in patients with preexisting respiratory disorders.
Melatonin receptor agonists: Ramelteon and tasimelteon
Ramelteon and tasimelteon work by binding to the melatonin receptor types MT1 and MT2. Ramelteon is useful only for the treatment of difficulties falling asleep and does not have any other effects, such as anxiolytic or myorelaxant effects, while tasimelteon is indicated for use in circadian sleep disorder. These agents do not treat difficulties staying asleep but also carry much less risk of cognitive/motor impairments and dependence issues.[27,28,37]
Diphenhydramine and hydroxyzine decrease arousal by blockading histamine receptors. Antihistamines are sold over the counter and are useful for treating difficulties in falling asleep only. There is limited evidence for the use of antihistamines to treat insomnia; these agents are used when traditional hypnotics or benzodiazepines are less suitable because of the risk of cross-dependence or other issues, such as vulnerability of a patient to addictions. The anticholinergic properties of antihistamines may also be beneficial in the treatment of nausea and vomiting. The sedative and anticholinergic properties of these agents increase the risk of delirium, especially in older patients.[27,28]
Sedating antidepressants are considered first-line agents when insomnia is comorbid with depression/anxiety symptomatology. (Refer to the Pharmacologic Intervention section in the PDQ summary on Depression for more information.) These drugs include tricyclic antidepressants (e.g., amitriptyline) and second-generation antidepressants (e.g., mirtazapine). The sedating effects of tricyclic antidepressants are caused mainly by histamine receptor blockading and partially by blockading of 5-HT2 and muscarinic receptors. The sedating effects of mirtazapine are caused by its blocking of 5-HT2 and histamine receptors, while those of trazodone are caused by its blocking actions at the at histamine, 5-HT, and noradrenaline receptors.[4,27,28]
Tricyclic antidepressants have a small therapeutic window and can be lethal in overdose, compared with second-generation antidepressants such as mirtazapine. Additionally, tricyclics carry other risks, such as risk of weight gain, anticholinergic side effects, and cardiovascular side effects and should be used under close supervision. These agents sometimes are used in low doses (see Table 2) as adjuncts to other antidepressants in the treatment of insomnia comorbid with depression/anxiety. This helps to avoid the side effects associated with higher doses while delivering the needed sedating effects. Tricyclics can also boost appetite and may be the treatment of choice for insomnia in patients with comorbid cachexia. Certain tricyclics (amitriptyline and nortriptyline) can also be beneficial in the treatment of pain syndromes (e.g., neuropathic pain) and headaches when these issues are comorbid with insomnia. Low doses of antidepressants (subtherapeutic for depression) are frequently used to treat insomnia without any comorbidities.
Mirtazapine, a second-generation antidepressant, also has appetite-stimulating and antiemetic properties in addition to sedating effects. It is frequently used in insomniac patients with depression (therapeutic dose for depression, 15–45 mg) or without depression (subtherapeutic doses for depression, 7.5–15 mg) with comorbid nausea or loss of appetite. In low doses, trazodone (50–100 mg) can promote sleep and is often combined with other antidepressants (e.g., fluoxetine 20 mg in the morning) in depressed patients with insomnia.
Antipsychotics such as quetiapine have sedating effects caused mainly by the blockade of histamine receptors. However, these agents should be considered as a last resort and as a short-term treatment because of their serious side-effect profile. The use of antipsychotics has been associated with weight gain, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cardiovascular risks, and the risk of extrapyramidal side effects, including tardive dyskinesia. Antipsychotics can be considered for treatment-refractory insomnia, especially with comorbid anxiety symptomatology.
Chloral derivative: Chloral hydrate
Chloral hydrate has sleep-promoting effects resulting from its effects on GABA systems. It is associated with risk of withdrawal symptoms similar to those of benzodiazepines and is associated with rapid development of tolerance. Additionally, chloral hydrate carries the risk of gastric irritation and multiple drug-drug interactions, and it is lethal in overdose. Like antipsychotics, chloral hydrate is usually considered only in cases of treatment-refractory insomnia because of its serious side-effect profile and the availability of safer alternatives.
Melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland during the hours of darkness, plays a major role in the sleep-wake cycle and has been linked to the circadian rhythm. A review found that short-term use of melatonin appears to be safe; however, the studies were not conducted in the context of cancer therapy. Adjuvant melatonin may also improve sleep disruption caused by drugs known to alter normal melatonin production (e.g., beta-blockers and benzodiazepines).[Level of evidence: IV] However, a meta-analysis of 25 studies exploring the efficacy and safety of melatonin in managing secondary sleep disorders or sleep disorders accompanying sleep restriction found that melatonin was not effective in these conditions.
Evidence suggests that circulating melatonin levels are significantly lower in physically healthy older people and in insomniacs than in age-matched control subjects. In view of these findings, melatonin replacement therapy may be beneficial in the initiation and maintenance of sleep in elderly patients.[Level of evidence: II] A slow-release formulation of melatonin is licensed in Europe and is approved as monotherapy for patients aged 55 years or older for the short-term treatment (up to 13 weeks) of primary insomnia characterized by poor-quality sleep. However, melatonin replacement as a treatment for insomnia has not been studied in older people with cancer. Ramelteon and tasimelteon work via the melatonin receptor system: ramelteon to support the initiation of sleep, and tasimelteon to correct circadian sleep disorder.
Melatonin may interact with certain chemotherapeutic regimens via the cytochrome P450 enzyme and other systems. It may augment the effects of some chemotherapeutic agents metabolized via the enzyme CYP1A2 and may exert inhibitory effects on P-glycoprotein–mediated doxorubicin efflux.
Clinical studies in renal, breast, colon, lung, and brain cancer suggest that melatonin exerts anticancer effects in conjunction with chemotherapy and radiation therapy; however, evidence remains inconclusive.[43,44] All of the studies suggesting antitumor effects of melatonin have been conducted by the same group of investigators and were open label. Efforts by independent groups of investigators are under way to investigate these effects in carefully designed, randomized, blinded studies.In vitro and animal studies have demonstrated the anticancer effects of exogenous melatonin, and lower melatonin levels are associated with tumor growth. Human studies have yet to substantiate any causal or associative relationships.
No studies have been conducted to specifically evaluate the effects of Cannabis inhalation or other Cannabis products in patients with primary or secondary sleep disturbances. Limited data from in vitro studies, animal studies, and small populations of healthy individuals or chronic Cannabis users are beginning to elucidate some of the relationships between various neurotransmitters and the sleep-wake cycle and related effects of Cannabis pharmacology.[46,47]
Cannabis-based medicines are under development as a treatment for chronic pain syndromes, including cancer-related pain. One such medication under investigation is nabiximols (Sativex), an oromucosal formulation (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol mixed in a 1:1 ratio). Studies conducted with nabiximols, primarily focusing on pain syndromes, have shown improvement in subjective sleep quality when sleep was measured as a secondary outcome. Comorbidities such as pain are common reasons for sleep disturbances. Concerns have been raised about the abuse and dependence potential of nabiximols, especially in the subpopulation of patients with histories of Cannabis use. Nabiximols is approved in Canada for the treatment of central neuropathic pain in patients with multiple sclerosis. In the United States, it is only available for investigational use and is currently under investigation for the treatment of intractable cancer pain.
Current Clinical Trials
Use our advanced clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are now enrolling patients. The search can be narrowed by location of the trial, type of treatment, name of the drug, and other criteria. General information about clinical trials is also available.
The Patient With Pain
Since enhanced pain control improves sleep, appropriate analgesics or nonpharmacologic pain management should be administered before introducing sleep medications. Tricyclic antidepressants can be particularly useful for the treatment of insomnia in patients with neuropathic pain and depression. Patients on high-dose opioids for pain may be at increased risk for the development of delirium and organic mental disorders. Such patients may benefit from the use of low-dose neuroleptics as sleep agents (e.g., haloperidol 0.5–1 mg).
The Older Patient
Older patients frequently have insomnia due to age-related changes in sleep. The sleep cycle in this population is characterized by lighter sleep, more frequent awakenings, and less total sleep time. Anxiety, depression, loss of social support, and a diagnosis of cancer are contributory factors in sleep disturbances in older patients.
Sleep problems in older adults are so common that nearly half of all hypnotic prescriptions written are for persons older than 65 years. Although normal aging affects sleep, the clinician should evaluate the many factors that cause insomnia, such as medical illness, psychiatric illness, dementia, alcohol and/or polypharmacy, restless legs syndrome, periodic leg movements, and sleep apnea syndrome. Nonpharmacologic treatment of sleep disorders is the preferred initial management, with the use of medication when indicated and referral to a sleep disorder center when specialized care is necessary.
Providing a regular schedule of meals, discouraging daytime naps, and encouraging physical activity may improve sleep. Hypnotic prescriptions for older patients must be adjusted for variations in metabolism, increased fat stores, and increased sensitivity. Dosages should be reduced by 30% to 50%. Problems associated with drug accumulation (especially flurazepam) must be weighed against the risks of more severe withdrawal or rebound effects associated with short-acting benzodiazepines. An alternate drug for older patients is chloral hydrate.
Sleep Apnea After Mandibulectomy
Anterior mandibulectomy can result in the development of sleep apnea. All patients with head and neck tumors who have had extensive anterior oral cavity resection should be evaluated before decannulation of the tracheostomy tube. Subsequent flap and/or reconstruction of the lower jaw seems to prevent the development of sleep apnea. In contrast, facial sling suspension of the lower lip does not prevent the development of sleep apnea. Assessment for symptoms and preparation for the appearance of symptoms in this population provide indications for interventions related to sleep apnea.
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Editorial changes were made to this summary.
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Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the pathophysiology and treatment of sleep disorders. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.
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This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Board members review recently published articles each month to determine whether an article should:
Changes to the summaries are made through a consensus process in which Board members evaluate the strength of the evidence in the published articles and determine how the article should be included in the summary.
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Some of the reference citations in this summary are accompanied by a level-of-evidence designation. These designations are intended to help readers assess the strength of the evidence supporting the use of specific interventions or approaches. The PDQ Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board uses a formal evidence ranking system in developing its level-of-evidence designations.
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PDQ® Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board. PDQ Sleep Disorders. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/sleep-disorders-hp-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389467]
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Last Revised: 2019-10-31
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