Sleep and Chronic Pain – How to Get A Good Night’s Sleep

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Sleep and chronic pain are closely related. A good night’s sleep relies on a calm and relaxed nervous system, and chronic pain isn’t exactly conducive to this. 

Sleep is how we regenerate our cells and stay alive. Less quality sleep, aside from making us more grumpy in the mornings, can reduce lifespan, and have severe short-term health drawbacks, not to mention the mental health consequences.

Basically, sleep is essential. And chronic pain… well let’s just say it wreaks havoc on even the most solid sleeping patterns. 

Chronic pain impacts both the quality and quantity of sleep 

Studies show that there’s both a causal link between lack of sleep and chronic pain, plus sleep is often interrupted by painful episodes. You may have had the experience where you had a long night’s sleep but have woken up even groggier than before – that’s because the quality of your sleep was poor. 

Alright, but how does one get a good night’s sleep?

First, understand how sleep works

When we go to sleep, everyone follows a similar pattern or cycle. It all starts with stages 1 and 2, which is very light sleep, then we fall deeper into sleep into stages 3 and 4, before stepping into the rapid eye movement phase (or REM phase), which is where we dream.  

This cycle is then repeated a few more times, with the REM phases becoming more frequent before we wake up. You might notice that you often wake up from a dream, or sometimes with the dream firmly in your memory in the first few minutes after waking – that’s because you’ve recently come out of your last REM phase. 

Chronic pain messes with your sleep cycle

During the REM phases it’s common to wake up during the night – and simply go back to sleep instantly without realising anything. However, when you’re in pain – you wake up and the pain takes over – making it harder to go back to sleep. If you’re suffering from chronic pain, you’ll know that waking up in the middle of the night is all too common – it also can take a while before your nervous system calms back down. 

How to improve my sleep?

Good news. There are ways to improve your sleep. It may take a bit of practice – after all our sleeping patterns are some of the most ingrained “habits” that we have. But here are some of the best ways you can improve your sleep.

Get a solid routine happening 

Your daily routine determines how much and how well you sleep. Talk to any sleep therapist and they’ll mention your routine and sleep habits as being one of the most important aspects of improving your overall quality of sleep. But what does this look like in practice?

  • Waking up at the same time each morning – even if your bedtime fluctuates each day. This will create a strong routine that your body gets used to. 
  • Try to go to sleep at the same time each night. 
  • Build a ‘wind down’ routine before bed. That might include things that your body can remember as a sign to prepare to settle down such as brushing teeth, watering plants, or getting things ready for the morning. Try to exclude anything that will wake you up more – like making a last-minute work call. 
  • Go to sleep at the set time even if you’re not tired. Irregular patterns confuse your body and dismantle good habits. Keep it predictable. 

Work on your relaxation game 

Relaxation is the bread and butter of a good night’s sleep. To get a good sleep, the body’s nervous system must be relaxed. While this can be hard when dealing with chronic pain, there are ways to minimise pain just before you get to the crucial pre-sleep phase. Doing regular meditation and mindfulness exercises is a great way of allowing the body the time and space to wind down. 

Improve your sleep hygiene 

Sleep hygiene? What’s that?

Sleep hygiene is an umbrella term for all of the things that improve sleep. This includes things like:

  • Diet – eating a balanced, low sugar diet with vegetables, whole foods, and fruit while minimising caffeine, fatty and processed foods is key in maintaining a balanced healthy lifestyle. 
  • Light – waking up with natural sunlight is best, and sleeping in as much darkness as possible means the body produces larger amounts of melatonin – a vital sleep hormone. 
  • Temperature – the body’s temperature cools naturally as we fall asleep. Having a warm shower before bed is a good idea as it temporarily raises the body’s surface temperature, before lowering it as you cool down. 
  • Noise – this is a pretty obvious one – but the less noise the better. Minimising background noise doesn’t just help in falling asleep, it also ensures a deeper sleep. 
  • Comfort – getting the right mattress for your needs is essential. Whether that’s a preference for a certain firmness or layout – always feel safe and comfortable in bed. 

(Try to) get rid of screens before bed

As tempting as it is to stay up and watch the latest episode, or scroll Instagram before you drift off, this actually impacts your body’s ability to produce critical sleep hormones – making it harder to fall asleep. Minimising screen time before bed can be hard – but allowing a sufficient buffer between the time when you actually “fall” asleep and the last snippet of screen time can do wonders for your sleep quality. 

Does Mental Health Affect Quality of Sleep?

A big yes. Mental health, anxiety, and mood all impact sleep in various ways. Many suffering from depression experience early morning awakening, and find it difficult to get back to sleep – impacting on energy levels throughout the day. Anxiety, on the other hand, can cause people to have difficulties falling asleep in the first place. Chronic pain can act as an instigator of anxiety, further impacting sleep patterns and dismantling good sleep habits. 

Benefits of Physio for Sleep

One of the best ways of tackling chronic pain and improving sleep is through physiotherapy. Getting a qualified, professional physiotherapist to help diagnose, treat and manage pain and movement issues that are causing sleep deprivation. Through a mixture of manual therapy and targeted exercises, a physio can help you turn around your bad sleeping habits and help you lead a healthier, more relaxed lifestyle. 

Want to find out more on how physiotherapy can help you get a good night’s sleep? Get to the root of the problem – book an appointment with your local Perth physiotherapy practice today.