Leave it to the experts to conduct a formal study on something painfully obvious to the rest of us -- that hospitals are noisy places where patients get little to no sleep, and that lack of sleep can negatively affect one’s recovery.
Anyone who has ever stayed even just one night in a hospital has their own horror stories of how all the noise and busy activity prevented them from getting a good night’s sleep. Announcements over the intercom, hospital staff talking louder than they realize right outside a patient’s door, the third-shift cleaning crew banging mops and floor-buffing machines against the walls all make for a restless night. Our favorite, of course, is patients who finally do get to sleep only to get woken up so the nurse can give them a sleeping pill.
Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University and the Cambridge Health Alliance this week released the findings of a study in which they recorded different kinds of hubbub in a community hospital in Boston’s suburbs, the Associated Press reports. A dozen healthy volunteers were enlisted to spend three nights in Mass General’s sleep lab as recorded hospital sounds blared from nearby speakers at increasing volumes.
Electronic sounds were the most likely to arouse people from sleep -- even at decibel levels not much above a whisper, the researchers reported Monday in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine. Particularly
The researchers also reported that the sleepers’ heart rates temporarily jumped as much as 10 beats a minute as they were aroused. If healthy young adults had a pronounced change in heart rate, image the stress of alarms sounding all night long in an ICU full of frail, older patients with weakened hearts, one of the researchers told the AP.
Lack of sleep has been linked to a number of other health problems as well, including high blood pressure, obesity, depression, memory problems and a weakened immune system. The AP reports that there has been far less research on how much sleep disruption interferes with recovery from illness, but it seems pretty obvious to us that if your heart rate, blood pressure and immune system are affected by lack of sleep then that can’t be good for your recovery.
One of the findings that surprised us is that the subjects didn’t remember most of the disruptions even though brain recordings clearly showed their sleep was interrupted, which suggests that patients’ complaints are underestimating the problem.
Acoustical engineers from Johns Hopkins helped sound the alarm about hospital noise several years ago, reporting that the average level at night has risen dramatically over the past few decades, according to the AP. No doubt this can be linked to the increasing use of technology -- those annoying monitors and alarms meant to alert medical personnel if a patient needs assistance.
But while technology is a culprit, it can also provide solutions. Some hospitals are testing ways to make at least some monitors flash signals at the nurses’ stations rather than sound loudly at the bedside, the AP reports. Hospitals are also finding other ways to reduce nighttime noise, like sound-absorbing materials, having workers use vibrating phones instead of overhead pagers, stricter enforcement of "quiet hours," and more private rooms.
These small steps, taken together, would go a long way in ensuring patients get a better night sleep and reduce the level of stress they feel, which in turn would promote better healing and a faster recovery.