Pain is one of the most common disruptors of sleep. It is bad enough when chronic pain makes it difficult to get through the day’s activities. Being unable to get a good night’s sleep makes it even more difficult to cope and can even make the pain worse. Chronic pain insomnia should be addressed because frequent sleep disturbance poses health risks.
Sleep Disorders and Chronic Pain Go Hand-in-Hand
Chronic pain is caused by any of a number of medical issues, including arthritis, headaches, fibromyalgia and spinal conditions. Chronic pain is also one of the common reasons people have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep.
The National Sleep Foundation reports that says that one-fourth of people experiencing chronic pain have been diagnosed by a doctor as having a sleep disorder. Only six-percent of other people have been diagnosed. Insomnia is called chronic when it occurs at least three nights a week for three months or longer.
The relationship between chronic pain and sleep is not a healthy one because there is a multiplying effect. Chronic pain interferes with sleep, and a regular lack of restful sleep increases sensitivity to pain. Lack of sleep leads to fatigue and anxiety and even impacts brain functioning. All of the effects of poor sleep increases feelings of pain, which disrupts sleep even more.
It is an endless unhealthy cycle. Insomnia caused by pain is called secondary insomnia, meaning the sleep problems are due to something else like medication or pain. Insomnia symptoms include:
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Waking up periodically throughout the night
- Difficulty falling back to sleep after waking up
- Waking up too soon, even after not sleeping enough
- Feeling tired after waking up and continuing to experience tiredness
- Feeling sleepy throughout the day
- Feeling stressed
Does Lack of Sleep Cause Pain?
Medical researchers continue to study the relationship of sleep and pain. It is known that chronic pain disturbs sleep, and frequent sleep disturbances can increase feelings of pain. However, the biology of the relationship is still not clear, and it is not definitely known if insomnia causes pain.
In a recent study published January on 2019 in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers found that sleep deprivation has two impacts on the brain. It increases the brain’s responses to pain and suppresses the areas in the brain that regulate pain.
What is known for sure is that not getting a good night’s sleep for several nights a week is unhealthy. Combining chronic pain and sleep problems is a recipe for a life disrupted, making it difficult to work and enjoy life in general. Following are some side effects of poor sleep.
- Irritability or anxiousness.
- Memory or concentration problems.
- Higher risk of heart disease, heart failure, heart attack and irregular heartbeat.
- Higher risk for high blood pressure.
- Higher risk for stroke.
- Higher risk for diabetes.
- Increased chance of depression.
- Release of more of the stress hormone cortisol, which breaks down skin collagen.
- Impact on appetite, making people more susceptible to weight gain.
Lack of good sleep on a regular basis is clearly very harmful to the mind and body.
Addressing Sleep Problems
If chronic pain is causing insomnia, chances are you are already working with a physician to address the medical condition causing the pain. If so, there is also a good chance you are already taking medications and do not want take yet another drug for sleep.
In general, people experiencing chronic pain often take a longer time to fall asleep and experience shorter sleep time and low sleep quality. The faster they go to sleep, the better.
There are natural ways to go to sleep.
- Fall asleep faster by eliminating all distractions, including lights, electronic equipment and noises.
- Develop a regular sleep-wake cycle and strictly adhere to it.
- Perform deep breathing exercises right before bed for relaxation.
- Do a relaxing activity before getting in the bed, like reading or a hobby.
- Go to bed only when sleepy, and get out of bed if unable to fall asleep within a half hour.
- Take a warm bath, which eases chronic pain and promotes relaxation and sleepiness.
- Sleep on a good mattress with a pillow that keeps the neck in alignment with the spine, which also reduces pain and promotes healthy sleep.
- Learn good sleep postures to ensure poor posture is not contributing to increased pain at night and insomnia.
- Regularly do the appropriate exercises during the day but finish exercising within four hours of going to bed.
- Do not drink alcohol or caffeine late in the day.
- Learn to meditate, or separate oneself mentally from the pain and the fear of insomnia with guided imagery.
- If pain disrupts sleep and makes it difficult to fall back to sleep, get up and do low energy, relaxing activity like reading with a low light.
Striving for Deep Sleep
Deep sleep is some of the most important sleep because it is the sleep cycle during which the pituitary gland secretes the human growth hormone, glucose metabolism in the brain increases and the body does much of its healing. People dealing with chronic pain are better off falling into a deep sleep as quickly as possible so there’s no time to focus on the pain, and there is more assurance of getting some of the critical sleep that delivers important health benefits.
There are ways to fall into a deep sleep fast. They include:
- Lying in bed and focusing on muscle relaxation, beginning with the face and rolling the relaxation down the body while breathing.
- Visualizing a relaxing place and not letting the mind wander.
- Cooling a dark room to 60-67 degrees, which is conducive to melatonin production.
- Learning progressive relaxation in which each of the muscles in the body are tensed for five seconds and relaxed for 30 seconds, working down or up the body.
- Not taking naps during the day so the body is tired by bedtime.
- Listening to calming music while falling asleep.
Seek Professional Help
Notice that most of the natural ways to fall and stay asleep with chronic pain are re-focusing the mind on something other than the pain. If, despite all efforts, you continue to experience insomnia, it is important to let your physician know. There may be treatment options available that can be integrated into an existing pain treatment plan.