News | Published April 2, 2014 | Written by Scott DeHart, MD, PhD, medical director, occupational health, Mount Nittany Physician Group

Shift Work Sleep Disorder

If you work nights or rotating shifts, do you find that you have difficulty adjusting your sleep and wake schedules or that you are feeling constantly sleepy? If so, you may be suffering along with many others from Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD). Other associated problems include loss of concentration, headaches, irritability, and an increased risk of accidents. Unfortunately, the problems don't end here in terms of adverse health effects. SWSD has also been associated with increased risk of stomach ulcers, heart disease, pregnancy risks, and even possibly an increased risk for cancer, among others. It may also pose problems for those with existing medical disorders such as diabetes and asthma who may need to adjust their treatments to the changing sleep-awake cycles.

Since SWSD results from a disturbance in the daily (circadian) sleep-awake cycle, treatment must be directed to adjusting or "fooling" this internal clock. The goal will still remain to achieve 7-8 hours of sleep each day. As a general rule, go to sleep immediately after work and avoid bright light (say with sunglasses) on the ride home from work. At the beginning of the shift, bright lights are desirable to set your wake period. You must also attempt to limit noises and disturbances while sleeping during the daylight. If possible, take brief (10-30 min.) naps during the night shift or during breaks. Medications are also available to increase alertness during the shift (caffeine and prescription medicines such as Provigil) or enhance sleep during the daylight hours (hypnotics).

Unfortunately, there are many different variations on shift work and there may need to be some creative solutions to deal with them. Seeking out the advice of your physician or a sleep medicine specialist will be the best course of action for complex or stubborn cases of SWSD.