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How to Get Better Sleep When You're in Pain

Anyone who's ever dealt with pain knows the struggle of getting a good night's sleep. Tossing and turning isn't just frustrating; it can actually worsen your pain and leave you feeling drained the next day. But there is hope! Understanding the connection between pain and sleep, and implementing key sleep strategies can improve your chances of drifting off and waking up feeling refreshed.

Why Does Pain Make it Hard to Sleep?

There are several reasons why pain can disrupt your sleep:

  • Discomfort: This is the most obvious reason. Painful positions, stiffness, or general discomfort can make it hard to find a comfortable sleeping position, leading to frequent awakenings.
  • Inflammation: Chronic pain often involves inflammation, which can disrupt the body's natural sleep-wake cycle.
  • Stress and Anxiety: Pain can be stressful and anxiety-provoking, making it challenging to quiet your mind and fall asleep.
  • Medication Side Effects: Some pain medications, especially opioids, can interfere with sleep quality, causing insomnia or fragmented sleep.
  • The “Insomnia-Pain Trap”: Poor sleep can increase your pain. Pain can prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep. This unfortunate cycle can lead to insomnia that can last for months or years at a time. Lack of sleep in patients with pain can impair their body’s ability to block pain signals. Blocking pain signals is an essential way that your body has developed to deal with painful conditions. When somebody suffers from a painful condition, such as fibromyalgia, the body is no longer able to block pain signals efficiently. Scientific studies on sleep patterns have found that a night of poor sleep can reliably predict that a person will have increased pain the next day.

What Level of Pain Keeps You from Sleeping?

The answer depends on the individual and their pain tolerance. For some, even mild aches or throbs can be enough to disrupt sleep. Others may be able to manage moderate pain while sleeping, but severe pain will undoubtedly cause sleep problems. However, it's important to note that even if you're not consciously aware of being woken up by pain, it can still disrupt your sleep cycle and prevent you from reaching deeper sleep stages.

Types of Pain that Leads to Sleep Disruption

Pain, in any form, can disrupt sleep. It may be a sudden episode of back pain due to a recent disc herniation or ongoing joint pain due to arthritis.

Examples of pain conditions that commonly disrupt sleep:

  • Headaches: Common headaches like tension headaches and migraines can keep you from falling asleep or wake you up at night.
  • Fibromyalgia: Widespread discomfort and muscle pain can impair sleep.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: This is a chronic joint inflammation due to an immune system disorder. It can cause neck pain and make sleep positions uncomfortable and painful.
  • Burn injury: Burned skin surfaces are excruciatingly painful. When the burned surface comes into contact with bedding, it can make sleep difficult.
  • Facial pain: Face pain is often a result of nerve disorders (trigeminal nerve pain). A mere touch or the slightest pressure can trigger burning or electric-like sensations.
  • Cancer pain: Cancer can spread to other organs, such as the bones. This is an extremely painful condition that can disrupt sleep.
  • Multiple sclerosis: As part of this disease, your immune system attacks the nerve cells in your brain and spinal cord. It results in arm and leg weakness, eye pain, electric shock sensations, and muscle spasms.

Why is Sleep Important for Pain Management?

Sleep is crucial to overall health and well-being, especially in pain management. Here's how sleep helps:

  • Cellular Repair: During sleep, your body repairs tissues and muscles, which is essential for healing from injuries or inflammation associated with chronic pain.
  • Pain Perception: Sleep deprivation can actually make you feel pain more intensely. Getting enough sleep helps regulate your body's pain sensitivity.
  • Mood Regulation: Sleep deprivation can worsen anxiety and depression, which can further exacerbate pain. Getting enough sleep can improve your mood and overall outlook, making it easier to cope with pain.

The Five Stages of Sleep

Restorative sleep consists of completing all five stages of sleep and the chemical changes that occur within a twenty-four-hour period, which allows the brain and body systems to repair, heal, and grow.

These five stages of sleep are:

  1. Light theta wave sleep
  2. True light theta sleep
  3. Light delta wave sleep
  4. Deep slow wave delta sleep
  5. Rapid eye movement sleep (REM)

Restorative sleep keeps your body functioning properly. Research has shown that without achieving all five stages of sleep, including the REM cycle, our bodies exist in a deficit. When body systems, organs, and cells are not adequately repairing themselves, it may lead to health issues. Bodies need restorative sleep to perform renewal functions like muscle growth, protein synthesis, and tissue repair.

Psychological studies indicate the benefits of completing the REM sleep cycle to help with mental functions like learning and memory. That’s why, as children, we were always told to get a good night’s sleep on a school night so we would do well educationally. Research also indicates that sleep is crucial to helping us manage stress and emotions.

How to Get More Deep Sleep When You're in Pain

Getting a good night's sleep when you're in pain can feel like a challenge, but these tips can help you sleep better:

Optimize Your Sleep Environment

  • Bedroom Oasis: Make your bedroom a haven for sleep. Ensure it's dark, quiet, cool, and clutter-free. Invest in blackout curtains, earplugs, and a comfortable mattress and pillows.
  • Temperature Control: A cool room temperature (between 60-67°F) is ideal for sleep.
  • Light Exposure: Dim the lights in the evening to promote melatonin production, the sleep hormone. Avoid using electronic devices close to bedtime, as the blue light emitted can disrupt your sleep cycle.

Develop a Relaxing Bedtime Routine

  • Wind Down: Establish a calming bedtime routine that signals to your body it's time to wind down. This could include taking a warm bath, reading a book, or practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation.
  • Avoid Stimulants: Avoid caffeine and alcohol for several hours before bedtime. Caffeine can interfere with sleep even if you consume it earlier in the day, and while alcohol might make you drowsy initially, it disrupts sleep later in the night.
  • Regular Sleep Schedule: Going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day, even on weekends, can help regulate your body's natural sleep-wake cycle.
  • Limit Napping: Short naps (around 20 minutes) can be refreshing, but long naps or napping too late in the day can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
  • Exercise Regularly: Regular exercise can improve sleep quality, but avoid strenuous workouts close to bedtime as they can be stimulating.
  • Light Dinner: Avoid heavy meals close to bedtime, but don't go to bed hungry either. A light, healthy snack before bed can help prevent hunger pains from disrupting your sleep.
  • Relaxation Techniques: Techniques like deep breathing exercises or meditation can help reduce stress and anxiety, making it easier to fall asleep.
  • Manage Your Pain Before Bed: Over-the-counter pain medication and heat or ice therapy can provide temporary relief and help manage nighttime pain.

Remember, getting a good night's sleep with pain takes some trial and error. Be patient with yourself, and don't get discouraged, even if you don't see results immediately. By implementing these strategies consistently, prioritizing pain management before bed, and consulting your doctor for personalized advice, you can improve your sleep quality and wake up feeling more rested and empowered to manage your pain throughout the day.

A Pain Specialist Can Address Your Pain-Related Sleep Problems

The best way to prevent pain from interfering with your sleep is to get it under control. A pain specialist can stabilize your pain so you can function better during the day and rest better at night.

Minimally Invasive Procedures Available to Help Sleep Quality

These non-surgical procedures can be performed by your pain specialist in their office. They involve injecting numbing medicine around the spine, into achy joints, close to painful nerves, and into tense muscles. Some procedures with more prolonged pain-relief effects involve placing current-emitting devices in your back (close to the spine). Minimally invasive procedures may be short (minutes) or take several hours to perform. They are usually offered by a pain specialist in their office or in a hospital setting, and you can go home on the same day. Examples of these procedures include:

  • Epidural injections
  • Spinal cord stimulation, dorsal root ganglion stimulation
  • Facet joint nerve blocks
  • Knee/hip joint injections
  • Peripheral nerve stimulation
  • Trigger point (muscle) injections

Our affiliated physicians are here to help you find the relief you need. Contact us online or by calling to book an appointment.

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