Pain affects all of us at some point in our lives. Sometimes it’s an occasional bout of pain – sore muscles from an injury, the discomfort of a headache – and other times pain is more chronic or recurring. Whatever the type of pain, sleep can play an important role in its relief. Pain and sleep influence one another deeply. Strong, healthy sleep can help you manage pain more effectively and even reduce pain sensitivity. Poor sleep, on the other hand, can make the experience of pain more uncomfortable.
The sleep-pain cycle
Stiff joints, a nagging backache, a throbbing tooth – pain of any kind can make sleep more difficult. The presence of pain makes falling asleep harder, and also can lead to waking during the night. These pain-related delays and interruptions can both shorten sleep duration – the overall amount of sleep – and diminish sleep quality. The presence of pain at night can disrupt the normal cycles of sleep, and reduce the time spent in the most physically and mentally rejuvenating phases of deep sleep and REM sleep. Pain is often accompanied by stress, and the anxiety associated with pain can inhibit sleep.
In turn, short and less restorative sleep may contribute to an increase in pain. The stages of deep sleep and REM sleep are vitally important to the body’s immune health, to physical repair and healing, and to mental and emotional well being. Research shows that poor quality and insufficient sleep actually increase sensitivity to pain, lowering thresholds for pain tolerance. When we’re short on sleep, we’re apt to experience more intensely the discomfort of pain. There’s also evidence indicating that poor sleep inhibits the effectiveness of pain medications. On the other hand, extended sleep is shown in studies to reduce pain sensitivity.
This cycle of pain and poor sleep can feel endless, and can interfere with both physical and mental wellness. Whether you’re recovering from an injury, suffering the symptoms of a cold or flu, or coping with a longer-term illness, sleep is critical to healing and recovery, and to the cessation of pain. Managing both pain and sleep is the key to breaking this often difficult cycle. If you are on pain medication, however, please talk to your physician about how it might affect your sleep.
Pain more common with age
The incidence of pain rises with age. As we grow older, we’re more likely to contend with chronic or recurring aches and pains. Adults over 60 are twice as likely to experience chronic pain as younger adults. Research also suggests that we become more sensitive to pain as we age. Maintaining a strong sleep routine throughout a lifetime can help you cope more effectively with age-related aches and pains.
At any age, when pain occurs that interferes with sleep it’s important to tend to the source of that pain as quickly and thoroughly as is possible, including seeking medical attention as needed. Protecting sleep against disruption from pain can help stop the debilitating sleep-pain cycle before it even begins. A strong sleep routine is a vital part of a healthy life, and critically important to managing pain effectively. Having a healthy sleep routine in place when pain arises can speed healing, allow medications to work at their best, and keep sensitivity to pain in check. Regular, abundant, high-quality sleep also helps regulate mood and emotions, enabling a more positive frame of mind to cope with all life’s challenges – including pain.
How to cope well with pain and sleep issues
A strong sleep routine starts with consistency, a habit of regular bedtimes and wake times that allows enough time for a full night’s rest. For most people, seven to nine hours a night is sufficient. When you’re coping with pain, you may find lengthening sleep duration helps. Be careful not to extend sleep too drastically – oversleeping can make you feel more tired and can create patterns of disrupted sleep. To lengthen sleep, try adding 30 to 60 minutes to your regular sleep routine. For most people, it’s easiest to add sleep at night, by setting bedtime earlier and waking at the regular time. Relaxation and visualisation can help relieve stress and may help with the physical discomfort of pain. These exercises, which include deep breathing, gentle stretching, and meditation, also help prepare the body and mind for sleep. Creating a bedroom environment that’s restful, inviting, and comfortable for sleep can help make sleep more enticing and easier to achieve. Take care to keep your sleeping environment clean, cool, quiet, and dark. Clean sheets, soft bedding, and loose, breathable bedclothes will enhance your comfort and your sleep throughout the night.
Sleeping well and feeling well go hand in hand. That’s true when you’re healthy and at full function – and also when you’re hurting.