Intensive care units are so noisy and disruptive that patients cannot get the restorative sleep that they need to heal, according to a report released on Monday.
But if nurses and technicians would simply adjust their schedules and avoid constantly waking patients through the night, patients may do better, the team at the University of Texas Southwestern found.
"We haven't recognized the importance of prescribing sleep," said Dr. Randall Friese, who led the study published in the Journal of Trauma: Injury, Infection and Critical Care.
"Patients in the ICU may look like they are sleeping, but they're not sleeping well. They are not getting the restorative stages that are required."
Nurses, doctors and technicians argue that their schedules require regular checks on patients, even through the night. But Friese said this may be interfering with the goal of getting the patient better.
"Current clinical-care protocols routinely and severely deprive critically ill patients of sleep at a time when the need for adequate rest is perhaps most essential," Friese said in a statement.
Experts know that nightly sleep occurs in 90-minute cycles, and people must go through the entire cycle to get to deep, rapid eye movement or REM sleep, which is critical to health.
Friese monitored the sleep patterns of 16 patients in the ICU who had suffered traumatic injuries or had abdominal surgery.
Although it appeared the patients were getting enough sleep, Friese said their brain wave patterns showed their sleep was fragmented and superficial.
"There are two major things contributing to abnormal sleep in these patients — the pathophysiology of the disease process itself and the stressful environment of the ICU," Friese said.
"If we can neutralize the stressful environment, maybe we can shorten the hospital stay, lower infection risks and increase patient wound healing."