If you suffer from chronic pain, you know the discomfort doesn’t take a break at night just because you’re ready for bed.
Chronic pain can make it harder to fall asleep, stay asleep, and get the rest that you need to be productive during the day. Though pain or discomfort doesn’t usually cause sleeplessness right away, over time, it can become a vicious cycle. Experiencing pain-related sleep problems one night can make you more likely to experience them again the next night, and so on.
Before you know it, you’re uncomfortable and sleep deprived—which is never a good combination. Fortunately, this is one cycle that you can break. Here we’ll discuss the short-term and long-term solutions that can help ease discomfort and help you sleep better for the future.
Why pain is bad for sleep.
Roughly 15% of Americans suffer from chronic pain; among older adults, estimates run as high as 50%. Among them, a full two-thirds say that their pain causes sleep problems, reports the National Sleep Foundation.
Sleep-related discomfort often comes in the form of lower back pain, headaches, or facial pain caused by TMJ syndrome. Musculoskeletal issues like fibromyalgia or arthritis are other common culprits, as is abdominal pain caused by premenstrual syndrome.
Pain often has the tendency to cause fragmented sleep through microarousals, or disruptions in deep sleep states throughout the night. Many medications that are used to treat pain, like morphine or codeine, are also known to disrupt the snooze cycle.
Feeling pain in a certain part of your body can also affect your sleep position. Arthritis and orthopedic pain, for instance, can make it difficult to get comfortable in bed, resulting in trouble staying asleep.
Add it all up, and its no wonder that pain sufferers end up feeling extraordinarily crummy and exhausted the next morning. And over time, that can lead to tons of negative side effects, from obesity to depression to a weakened immune system.
Worst of all? The chronic sleep deprivation can make your pain even more intense. In a 2012 study published in the journal SLEEP, researchers found that people who slept for seven hours were less tolerant of pain than those who slept for a more leisurely nine. Another study, from 2006, found that just one night of bad sleep made people a whopping 25% more sensitive to pain.
Short-term sleep solutions.
Achieving more restful sleep with chronic pain can take work, and won’t necessarily happen overnight. However, practicing good sleep hygiene is something that you can start doing right away to help improve your sleep quality as soon as possible. Some simple tactics to try:
- Limit caffeine. Steer clear of caffeinated drinks in the afternoon and beyond. If you’re especially sensitive to the effects of caffiene, try cutting the offender out altogether.
- Break a sweat. People who exercise regularly—even in the evening!—sleep better than couch potatoes.
- Limit naps. Snoozing for more than 20 minutes during the day could hurt your chances for sleeping well that night.
- Establish a bedtime routine. Making wind down activities—like reading or taking a hot bath—a nightly thing can send your brain the message that it’s time for lights out.
- Try relaxation techniques. Deep breathing, guided imagery, and meditation can all help to lull you to into dreamland.
Another thing: Depending on the type of pain you have, certain positions will do a better job of relieving discomfort—and encouraging sleep—than others. Here, the best ways to sleep if you suffer from:
- Back pain or knee pain: Sleep on your back with a pillow under your knees, or on your side with a pillow between your knees.
- Neck pain: Sleep on your back with a flat pillow under your head, or on your side with a pillow that’s higher under your neck than under your head.
- Shoulder or hip pain: Sleep on whichever side is pain-free.
- Heartburn pain: Sleep on your left side, which makes it harder for painful acid to escape the stomach. Elevating the upper half of your body with a wedge-shaped support pillow helps, too.
Long-term solutions for sleep.
If pain or discomfort is what’s keeping you awake, you may want to consider finding ways to make your bedroom more comfortable.
The most obvious spot? Your mattress. Up to 85% of adults will experience back pain at some point in their lives, and sleeping surface often has a lot to do with it. Finding the best mattress for back pain can go a long way in easing your discomfort. Your back muscles need to decompress at night to relieve tension, but if your lower back isn’t supported while you sleep, those muscles will stay tense. The result? Pain, pain, pain.
To keep your lower back supported, you need to keep your spine properly aligned. Mattresses that are too firm or too soft can cause your backbones to curve unnaturally, causing discomfort. Memory foam mattresses, on the other hand, contour to your body’s natural shape and support your lower back—helping your muscles to relax and let go of tension.
Of course, which type of foam mattress you choose depends on the severity of your pain as well as the shape of your body. To learn more about which mattress might be right for you, check out our guide reviewing the best mattresses of 2019.
Should you see a doctor?
If making changes on your own haven’t helped and you continue to have trouble sleeping two or three nights a week, talk with your doc. Together, you can review your medications and discuss other treatment options, like physical therapy or seeing a psychologist.
Have you overcome pain-related sleep issues? What worked for you?