If you live with chronic pain, whether from pounding headaches, an autoimmune disorder or an old injury has gone awry, you know how difficult it can be to get to sleep. And when you can’t rest, pain increases, making it harder and harder to break the cycle of escalating pain and sleeplessness.
If you have chronic pain — or acute pain from a recent injury — it may be beneficial to get enough sleep as this may actually make you hurt less. Many studies have shown that there is a strong link between sleep loss and lower pain threshold. Unfortunately, being in pain can make it hard to sleep, but this article is about finding that balance and sleeping despite all the pain.
Pain doesn’t just make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep, but can also impact your quality of sleep. For example, you may sleep less efficiently, spending less time in the most restorative phases of sleep.
Getting a good night’s sleep won’t grant you immunity from disease. But study after study has found a link between insufficient sleep and some serious health problems, such as heart disease, heart attacks, diabetes, and obesity.
In most cases, the health risks from sleep loss only become serious after years. That might not always be true, however. One study simulated the effects of the disturbed sleep patterns of shift workers on 12 young healthy adults. After a mere four days, three of them had blood glucose levels that qualified as pre-diabetic.
It may seem obvious that sleep is beneficial. Even without fully grasping what sleep does for us, we know that going without sleep for too long makes us feel terrible and that getting a good night’s sleep can make us feel ready to take on the world.
Scientists have gone to great lengths to fully understand sleep’s benefits. In studies of humans and other animals, they have discovered that sleep plays a critical role in immune function, metabolism, memory, learning, and other vital functions. The features in this section explore these discoveries and describe specific ways in which we all benefit from sleep.
Beyond that, sleep has so many health benefits beyond staving off the pain. It helps the brain learn and remember new things, bolsters the immune system, keeps moods stable and reduces stress. Restful sleep can even reduce the intensity and duration of pain. So, how can people with pain take charge of sleep? Try the tips below to take the stress out of bedtime and harness healthy ZZZs.
Adjust your pillow
If you have neck or back pain, sleeping on your stomach can exacerbate your problem because it causes your spine to arch and your neck to twist. Your sleeping position should take any health conditions (such as acid reflux) into account, so check with your physician before switching your routine.
Ready for a change?
Body pillows can help reinforce a new sleeping position by preventing you from tossing and turning. If you have back pain, sleeping on your back with a pillow under your knees can take pressure off of the spine. Holding a body pillow between your knees can also prevent those bony joints from touching and help align your hips for greater comfort.
If you have neck pain, an orthopedic (contoured) pillow can help provide support. Remember that any time you sleep, your positioning is important, so consider a travel pillow if you have a long flight or if you plan to sleep while riding in the car.
If you have a hard time turning your attention away from pain while lying in bed, remind yourself that a thought is just an idea; you don’t have to believe in it or act on it. Instead, try this simple, pain-reducing exercise:
Set a timer for 5 minutes.
Find a comfortable position to lie down.
Focus on your lungs expanding and contracting as you breathe in and out for a few moments.
Put yourself in the neutral frame of mind. It may help to imagine cares and worries from the day sailing or floating away.
Observe your thoughts without labeling them “good” or “bad.”
If a negative thought (“This pain will never end” or “The pain is too awful, I can’t bear it”) pops up, acknowledge it, then turn your attention back to your breathing.
We know that the brain and body are connected, and stress, depression, and anxiety play a part in how we perceive pain. Try allowing yourself to experience these thoughts without embracing them to prime your body for healing, restorative sleep.
Relieve Muscle Tension
Carve out time in your schedule for pain-management techniques that work for you, such as a hot bath, an ice or heating pack or a few minutes of slow, even breathing. Regular relaxation rituals, such as calming music or aromatherapy (try lavender to aid sleep), relax aching muscles to break the cycle of pain and help you drift off to sleep more easily.
Get Strategic Simple sleep hygiene, or the habits you follow around bedtime, can make a big difference in how well you sleep. When pain is bothersome, it can be easy to overlook these basics. But the fewer factors you have to contend with in addition to pain, the more likely you’ll be able to fall asleep and stay asleep. Remember to:
- Limit environmental noise or wear earplugs.
- Here are a few more tips to help your sleep:
- Make your bed a place for sleep and sex only, not work or screen media.
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day (even on the weekends).
- Avoid long naps, especially in the late afternoon and evening
- Limit alcohol and caffeine intake in the hours before bed.
- Exercise regularly, but avoid working out within three hours of your bedtime.
- Limit time spent staring your computer, phone, TV or other screens before bed.
- Don’t share your bed–or your room–with pets, as this can affect your sleep.
Rethink Your Attitude
Thinking about pain often and dwelling on its negative effects on your life can make it harder to go to sleep. Scheduling a fun distraction, even something as simple as reading a favorite magazine, can take your mind off the the worrisome pain and make it easier to fall asleep.
Sleep-promoting supplements, such as melatonin, may help you get much-needed shut-eye without a prescription. Gather information about how tiredness impacts your pain and daily activities and consult a healthcare provider to see if an over-the-counter product could help.
Rule Out Other Underlying Conditions
When pain is out of control, sleep may be impossible. Talk to your physician about your daily pain levels and how best to balance day-to-day function with pain relief. Ask specifically about the pain that spikes around bedtime, and how you might use medications for nighttime pain relief (as compared to your during-the-day regimen).
Even a quick chat with a general practitioner during a routine physical can help by ruling out sleep-limiting conditions such as sleep apnea, and make sure that existing medications you may be taking aren’t interfering with your sleep.
Chronic pain can have so many implications for daily life, but chronically poor sleep doesn’t have to be one of them. Some sleep loss may be inevitable on bad days, but practicing good sleep habits will help you break the cycle of poor sleep and increased pain, and keep overall pain levels manageable over a period.