Fragmentation is what occurs during sleep when you struggle to maintain one long stretch of uninterrupted sleep. Instead, you awaken frequently, and can’t get good blocks of deep sleep, as a result. It is a marker of sleep-maintenance insomnia, the kind of insomnia in which you have no trouble falling asleep, but you arouse easily and often and, therefore, cannot maintain sleep.
What makes fragmentation particularly difficult is that if you have multiple periods of awakening, you become conscious that you aren’t sleeping, but that you should be sleeping. Rumination and hypervigilance about sleep loss tend to perpetuate anxiety, which then only adds to your inability to fall asleep again. If you have ever watched the clock all night long, after falling asleep easily but waking up frequently after you’ve fallen asleep, then you are experiencing fragmented sleep.
The worry that comes with not getting good sleep isn’t without good reason. Fragmented sleep can be a nighttime devil for many.
When your sleep is fragmented, you are less likely to cycle through the slow-wave sleep that helps your body heal and you are more likely to wake up unrefreshed in the morning (because you’ve been awake, on and off, all night).
Sleep fragmentation also threatens certain brain processing functions like memory consolidation and can even interfere with the brains ability to keep consciousness and memory separate.
As we age, our sleep is more likely to fragment, though it’s not well understood as to why. It could be a normal byproduct of aging or the result of medication use or the presence of other illnesses.
People with depression and anxiety, who also have fragmented sleep, may see their mental illness worsen. Also, people with Parkinson’s Disease, dementia and other neurological troubles may report broken sleep patterns as a symptom of their condition.
Other sleep disorders, like narcolepsy, periodic leg movement disorder, restless legs, UARS and sleep apnea, may also lead to sleep fragmentation.
Treating sleep fragmentation requires identifying its root cause first and treating it. Easier said than done… If there are no physical or mental illnesses or medications that could explain the sleep fragmentation, then doctors have little else to go on except for the presence of sleep-maintenance insomnia. Patients with this sleep disorder may benefit greatly from cognitive behavior therapy.