If you’re one of the millions of Americans suffering from chronic pain, you know that a good night’s sleep is hard to come by. In fact, you might not even remember the last time you experienced a halfway-decent night’s sleep. As is the case with most things that disrupt our sleep, the sleep loss resulting from chronic pain often begins a vicious cycle which only makes the source of the pain worse, causing even more sleep loss.
When we're prevented from getting at least seven hours of consistent and uninterrupted sleep by issues such as chronic pain, we miss out on some of sleep’s most helpful benefits.
Chronic pain and sleep stages
Throughout a full night of sleep, our brains cycle between two phases, called non-REM and REM sleep (REM stands for “rapid eye movement”). NREM sleep typically takes up the largest chunk of time, as NREM itself progresses through a series of three stages. The first two stages of NREM are light sleep, and they’re the first stages we enter when we’re falling asleep, when we are most able to be awakened. The third stage consists of deep sleep, and this is when our muscle functions shut down and our body boosts its production of hormones that make repairs to damaged tissues.
When you’re suffering from chronic pain, you’re more sensitive to small wakeups throughout the night as you transition through this sleep cycle, leaving you feeling drowsy and fatigued in the morning. Every time that these wakeups keep you from spending time in the deep, restorative stage of NREM sleep, your body also loses a chance to make some much-needed repairs. Without sleep’s essential support, you may not be dealing with the source of pain as effectively as possible, and so the vicious cycle continues.
How to improve your sleep
Before anything, talk to your doctor. Hopefully, if you know you’re experiencing chronic pain, you’re already in communication with your doctor, but if your chronic pain is also causing you constant sleep loss, make sure you’re bringing this up with your doctor, too. Additionally, you should let them know if you feel that the medication you take to treat your pain is ruining the quality of your sleep.
Your doctor may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy. If your doctor believes that your chronic pain is causing you to suffer from insomnia, they may recommend you meet with a sleep specialist to examine your sleep hygiene and recommend some changes for the better. Along with this, the specialist will help you create positive connections with sleep to keep you from dreading bedtime.
For chronic back pain, some lifestyle changes may help. There’s a very good chance that your back pain stems from what you put your back through during the day. You should be standing as much as possible, making sure you’re not slouching, and stretch at least once per day. Also, if your back pain is more intense upon waking up in the morning, you may need a change of mattress or a refreshing of your pillows.
You shouldn’t sleep on a mattress that’s too soft or saggy, as this can throw your spine out of alignment. Similarly, make sure you’re not sleeping on stiff, short-lived springs that will push back against your body. Consider investing in an adjustable base with a natural latex mattress for more comfort.
You should make sure your pillows are providing you with the right amount of support. A pillow with extra thickness in the bottom third is ideal, as this will help to cradle your neck.
Don’t go it alone
It’s an undeniable fact that sleep is an essential ally in our fight against illness and disease. While your chronic pain may be due to a condition outside of your control, it’s important to remember that you can still take steps to protect this ally to the best of your ability. As we like to remind folks, if you put in the work to improve your sleep, your sleep will put in the work to improve you—we guarantee it!
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