After a Sleep Disorder Diagnosis, When Can You Consider Yourself Cured?


Conquering insomnia means spending less than 30 minutes awake at night.(RUBBERBALL/GETTY IMAGES)

Until you find a treatment that really works, a sleep disorder can turn your life upside down. And even if you feel cured—whether it's thanks to a breathing machine to open obstructed airways or cognitive-behavioral therapy to put your mind at ease—you may still experience at least an occasional sleepless night.

So what does it mean to be successfully treated for a sleep disorder? That depends on your condition:

Sleep apnea
For people with
sleep apnea who frequently stop breathing at night, there are real numbers that doctors use to measure success. The goal is to raise your lungs' oxygen saturation back up to a healthy 90%, according to Ralph Downey III, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California. In many cases, this is as simple as using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine each night to keep air flowing into the lungs.

CPAP therapy is not a cure, however; patients who find success with a breathing machine need to use it every night indefinitely, and can only stop if their apnea improves by other means—possibly through weight loss or surgery. Reducing fatty tissue around the neck area or enlarging narrow nasal passages can produce permanent results for some people, while others are plagued with sleep apnea forever.

Chronic insomnia can be difficult to treat, and long-term medication use is not the solution for many patients. Even with medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy, some people will struggle with sleeplessness for years—especially if chronic pain is involved.

If sleep improves by 60% to 80% after treatment for long-term insomnia, you're considered a success, says Michael J. Sateia, MD, chief of sleep medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. In clinical trials, insomniacs are sometimes considered "cured" when it takes less than 30 minutes to fall asleep, and they spend less than 30 minutes being awake at night. While no exact number can be applied to all patients, it can be a loose benchmark for doctors and patients to aim for.

Other conditions
Conditions such as restless legs syndrome and narcolepsy can last forever—and because they're suspected to have a genetic link, there's not much doctors can do to eliminate them. Instead, they aim to keep symptoms under control with medication and behavior modifications.

Sometimes RLS is caused by an underlying factor such as diabetes or iron deficiency; in that case, getting appropriate treatment may eliminate RLS symptoms permanently.

Finding the right treatment for whatever condition you're suffering from can be a long, and sometimes never-ending, process. And your quest isn't made any easier by the memory problems, exhaustion, and irritability you're probably experiencing, on top of stress about the condition itself. While you're struggling with treatment for your sleep disorder, you'll need ways to cope with its daily consequences—at work, on the road, and while interacting with friends and family.