The importance of a good night of sleep cannot be underestimated. Sleep deprivation has been linked to increased obesity and body fat, a compromised immune system, and serious chronic illness such as diabetes. It has even been used as a torture technique. A full night’s rest is essential to help your body rejuvenate and repair. If you are suffering from chronic pain, a solid rest every night is crucial to helping to manage your pain. Here is how sleep works to keep you healthy and how the research on chronic pain and sleep deprivation is showing how lack of sleep can actually make pain worse. (Plus, ten tips to improve your sleep hygiene to get the shut-eye you need!)
The research on chronic pain and sleep deprivation
Lack of sleep has been tied to poor performance on the job and slow reflexes behind the wheel (nearly as dangerous as driving drunk), but new research is finding that getting a full night of shut-eye can not only help you be more alert but can also help reduce inflammation and pain.
Researchers at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Health Sciences, found that treating insomnia in the elderly could lead to reduced inflammation and chronic pain. The study of 123 adults found that those who were successfully treated for insomnia had a lower level of C-reactive protein (CRP). This is an identified marker of inflammation. When someone is suffering from an attack of inflammation, CRP levels rise. Adults over 55 who were treated for insomnia had continued low levels of this protein. This was even almost a year and a half into the study. They also had lower levels of pain.
Michael Irwin, first author and a professor of psychiatry and director of the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior believes that these findings further cement sleep’s importance:
“To advance public health, these findings prominently emphasize the position of sleep among the three pillars of health — diet, exercise and sleep…if insomnia is untreated and sleep disturbance persists, we found that CRP levels progressively increase… these findings indicate that it is even more critical to treat insomnia in this population who are already at elevated risk for aging-related inflammatory disease.”
Fatigue and pain
Fatigue can also exacerbate chronic pain, making it difficult for those suffering to exercise or be active during the day. A study from University of Warwick’s Department of Psychology, published in PLoS One, found that helping pain patients sleep well helped managed pain related to poor sleep. Dr. Nicole Tang, lead-author of the study noted that:
“Engaging in physical activity is a key treatment process in pain management. Very often, clinicians would prescribe exercise classes, physiotherapy, walking and cycling programmes as part of the treatment, but who would like to engage in these activities when they feel like a zombie?”
The sleep-pain cycle
Another study published in Arthritis Care & Research, a journal of the American College of Rheumatology (ACR), also found that the lack of sleep-increased pain cycle is difficult to break. Dr. Patricia Parmelee from the Center for Mental Health & Aging at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa had this to say about the sleep-pain cycle:
“Sleep disturbance is a common complaint among those with pain, particularly among those with OA [osteoarthritis]… Our research is unique as we investigate the complex relationships among sleep, OA-related pain, disability and depressed mood simultaneously in a single study.”
There is good news about all this bad news about chronic pain and sleep deprivation. Sleep deficits can be remedied easily, and the effects of lack of sleep can be reversed. There are specific ways to improve sleep hygiene that can yield immediate rewards.
How to get better sleep
According to the American Sleep Association, there are some steps you can take to make sure you the best sleep possible, so that you wake up feeling refreshed, energized and ready to take on the day.
1. Keep the room cool
When you sleep, your body temperature drops. Keep your bedroom cool at night (around 65 degrees) so that you can add blankets to your bed no matter what the season. The drop in body temperature signals to your body that it is time to sleep, and the additional weight of the blankets will promote relaxing, restorative sleep.
2. Go to bed earlier
Just like babies who stay up past their bedtime and then throw fussy temper tantrums, adults can get overly tired and be unable to fall asleep. In addition, adults who stay up late and sleep fewer hours report more negative thoughts and more worry. Going to bed an hour or two earlier can help ease into rest.
3. Stay on schedule
It’s important to maintain the same sleep schedule, day in and day out, even on the weekends, so that your body can get get used to keeping this rhythm. To sleep better, try to go to bed and wake up at the same time (give or take about 20 minutes). It also helps to keep a relaxing pre-bedtime routine, such as a warm bath, soft music or meditation.
4. No naps
There is a lot of debate as to whether or not naps can help or hurt a person’s sleep routine, but the ASA says naps decrease the “sleep debt” that makes it easier to fall asleep at night. So if you’ve napped that day, you’ve increased your odds of having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.
5. Minimize clutter
A calm, cool bedroom that is tidy (no messy nightstands!) is welcoming and promotes restful slumber. Remove clutter from the nightstand, clean up the cobwebs, and keep sheets and pillows fresh and clean. Make your environment as comfortable as possible with regard to temperature and noise level. Keep pets out of the bedroom if they’re loud or distracting. Turn off the TV if you keep one in the bedroom, and make sure the room is dark.
6. Turn off screens
A study out of Iowa State University found that minimizing screen time for children has benefits that include a good night’s sleep, better behavior in general, and improved academic performance. Children average 40 hours a week of screen time, and adults even more than that with computer-based jobs.
Turning off all screens a couple hours before bedtime for sleepers of all ages allows the brain to settle down and shift into sleep mode. There are studies that show that the artificial light emitted from computers and televisions can be stimulating, so it makes sense to turn it off when you want to rest. There is a software called f.lux that helps to adapt your computer’s lighting to make it more like the glow of the moon, but play it safe and just shut down altogether.
7. Uni-task the bedroom
We ask our bedrooms to function as more than just bedrooms these days. They are also a home office, a movie theater, and sometimes a workout room. Simplify the bedroom’s function by eliminating all other uses and just focus on sleep and intimacy. It can be hard to relax when we have a desk piled high with papers staring at us from across the room. Move the desk, relocate the treadmill, and make your bed the highlight of the room.
Try to treat the bed as a place just for sleeping so your brain subconsciously associates being in bed with being asleep. Then it can associate other activities with being awake. This means you shouldn’t read, watch TV, or surf the internet while you’re sitting in bed.
Similarly, don’t lie in bed awake for longer than five or ten. Get up and and sit in a chair in the dark to let your mind race in a place that isn’t your bed. Once you feel drowsy, climb back into bed. You can repeat this as many times as necessary. Just avoid any engaging activity that will make it hard for your mind to wind down.
Exercising in the morning, even just a short walk or brief session of yoga, helps follow the body’s natural rhythms of wakefulness and resting. It also promotes healthy sleep. Exercise relieves tension and irritability and increases energy levels. In an analysis of 70 studies of exercise and fatigue the results were very clear.
“More than 90% of the studies showed the same thing: Sedentary people who completed a regular exercise program reported improved fatigue compared to groups that did not exercise,” says researcher Patrick O’Connor, PhD, co-director of the University of Georgia exercise psychology laboratory, in Athens, Ga. “It’s a very consistent effect.” Avoid exercising in the heat of the day, and make sure to drink plenty of water throughout your exercise.
9. Skip the meds
Desperate times call for desperate measures when it comes to chronic pain and sleep deprivation. After weeks of no sleep, you may be tempted to reach for prescription meds. If possible, resist the urge, especially for teens. The University of Michigan found that teens who were prescribed anti-anxiety or sleep medications were up to 12 times more likely to use those drugs recreationally as they got older. If you can use natural remedies like melatonin or teas like chamomile or valerian, try those first.
In some cases, a pain reliever may be necessary to help you relax and ease into sleep. Using natural remedies may help you to sleep after that. As always, even when taking a natural remedy, check with your doctor for any potential drug interactions.
10. No caffeine after noon, and avoid other stimulants
To sleep better, avoid coffee and other caffeinated beverages after noon, as well as cigarettes (nicotine) and alcohol. Some prescribed and over-the-counter medications may also make it harder to fall asleep. Discuss this issue with your doctor if you’re having trouble falling asleep.
If your pain is effecting your sleep, or if your sleep is exacerbating your pain, get help. A pain doctor can help find treatments to reduce pain. Or, they could discuss other sleep modifications you could use. Find a pain doctor in your area by clicking the link below. Or, read more about pillows you can use for neck pain or ways to combat hip pain at night.