In the U.S. approximately 70 million people suffer from sleep deprivation (60% of them chronically). Chronic lack of sleep not only makes us irritable the next day. It can also have seriously detrimental health effects if we don’t learn how to sleep better.
How to sleep better to reduce pain
Some health effects associated with loss of sleep, include:
- Loss of coordination and balance (particularly dangerous for older patients)
- Increased chance of depression and anxiety
- Increased risk of Type 2 diabetes
- Weaker immune system
- Higher incidence of heart disease
- Memory problems
Not only are these sleep-deprived folks less productive, more prone to future health problems, and generally unhappy, if they are chronic pain sufferers, they may actually be in more pain than they would be with a full night of shut-eye. Lack of sleep can actually increase the perception of pain, which can, in turn, make it more difficult to sleep.
Charles Bae, MD, a neurologist at the Sleep Disorders Center at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, connects the dots like this:
“Pain can be the main reason that someone wakes up multiple times a night, and this results in a decrease in sleep quantity and quality, and on the flip side, sleep deprivation can lower your pain threshold and pain tolerance and make existing pain feel worse.”
Left untreated, this cycle can become entrenched, but once addressed, learning how to sleep better could actually reduce pain.
Why sleeping better can reduce pain
A study from the American Pain Society confirms that not only can sleep intensify the perception of pain among osteoarthritis sufferers, but it also alters neural pathways and makes patients more susceptible to a heightened perception of pain. This same study also hypothesized that implementing sleep interventions could help reduce pain. For osteoarthritis sufferers, the most effective treatments were in cognitive behavioral therapies that helped patients address root causes of sleeplessness and deal with them.
Another study from the University of Warwick conducted a meta-analysis of 72 studies with nearly 1,100 participants who were experiencing not only insomnia but also a number of different pain conditions, including back pain and headache. Researchers were looking to see if sleep interventions could reduce pain, and, if so, which were most effective. They also found that cognitive behavioral therapy resulted in mild to moderate reduction in pain and better sleep, both immediately after therapy and at a 12-month follow-up.
Dr. Nicole Tang, from the university’s department of psychology, highlighted the importance of a non-drug therapy to treat insomnia as a long-term approach to help reduce pain for patients, noting:
“Poor sleep is a potential cause of ill health and previous studies suggest it can lead to obesity, diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease — even death…It is also a major problem for those suffering pain that lasts longer than three to six months and that is why we looked at this group…This study is particularly important because the use of drugs to treat insomnia is not recommended over a long period of time therefore the condition needs to be addressed using a non-pharmacological treatment.”
Getting better sleep with fibromyalgia and back and neck pain
For those with fibromyalgia, researchers have found that this whole-body chronic pain condition may change the slow wave sleep patterns in the brain. Slow-wave sleep patterns are responsible for the deepest levels of sleep (when compared to rapid eye movement, or REM, levels of sleep where dreaming occurs). When study participants experienced disruption in these slow-wave patterns, decreased pain threshold, increased discomfort, fatigue, and inflammatory flare response in skin were observed after just three nights. An estimated 75% of fibromyalgia patients report sleep disturbances.
Back and neck pain also cause disruption of sleep that can affect every aspect of a person’s life. The same study that found an estimated 75% of fibromyalgia patients suffering from sleep disruption also estimated that nearly 60% of back and neck pain patients had some type of sleep disorder. While many of us may experience a night of tossing and turning, these numbers are for patients who experience nightly sleep disruption due to pain.
Learning how to sleep better can reduce pain
The good news is that improving sleep could help reduce pain. Many suggestions for improved sleep include non-pharmaceutical interventions, a positive for those chronic pain patients already taking multiple medications for pain.
One of the biggest recommendations focuses on improving sleep hygiene. Improving sleep hygiene includes suggestions such as:
- Uncluttering the bedroom
- Reserving the bedroom for sleep and intimacy (no work or TV)
- Turning off screens
- Maintaining a regular schedule of sleep
Other sleeping tips that can help reduce pain include making sure you have the proper sleeping tools. This means finding a mattress and pillows that work for you. Some chronic pain patients find their best sleep on a firm surface, but some require a little more padding. New memory foam mattresses also make it easier when sleeping with a partner, as they do not move when the other person shifts their weight.
One of the most important ways for learning how to sleep better is to prepare yourself to relax so you can rest. Cognitive behavioral therapy is so effective for sleep disorders because it helps remove the anxious anticipation of a poor night of sleep. Removing the negative thoughts and focusing only on what is happening is another tool that can be cultivated through brief meditations before sleep. Simple solutions like setting up a regular routine that includes a soothing bath, self-massage, and a cup of tea can help settle your mind and ease you into a night of restful sleep.
It may not happen overnight, but improving sleep can help reduce pain. What are your favorite ways to ensure a good night’s rest?