Manage chronic pain to deal with insomnia

Chronic pain can lead to or exacerbate insomnia. Here are some tips for sleeping better.

An older male-presenting person clutching their back and wincing in pain.
Photo: Shutterstock.

If you are suffering from chronic pain, chances are you are having a challenge sleeping through the night. The inability to sleep is called insomnia. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one third of adults report getting less than the recommended sleep each night. Not getting enough sleep is linked to many chronic conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and depression.

Insomnia can be defined as:

  • Having difficulty falling asleep.
  • Waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to go back to sleep.
  • Waking up too early in the morning.
  • Not getting good quality sleep.

A person with chronic pain might take an hour to fall asleep due to being uncomfortable in bed. When one wakes frequently, it may be because turning a certain way causes pain. This can start a vicious cycle where you cannot get back to sleep because you are thinking about the pain or experiencing pain. Perhaps you are someone who can fall asleep well enough but always wakes up too early. This may be due to pain or depression from chronic pain. Any of these problems have indicated your sleep patterns are interrupted. When you are tired, it makes it difficult to cope with pain and hard for your body to recover.

To cope with your insomnia, try doing the following:

  • Make sure your mattress and pillows are comfortable. You want to make your sleeping space as comfortable and pain-free as possible.
  • Avoid caffeine before bedtime. Caffeine is a stimulant found in coffee, tea and soda and disrupts sleep.
  • Avoid alcohol and nicotine before bedtime. Although it may relax you before bed, these two stimulants generally disrupt your restorative stages of sleep.
  • Control the temperature of your room. Don’t make it so warm to where you will sweat or so cold to where you are tense and rolled up like a ball in bed.
  • Exercise during the day. This will help you sleep better at night and may relieve some of the pain symptoms you may be experiencing.
  • Limit the number of naps you take during the day. Naps may interfere with your sleep at night.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on the weekends. Your body will get into a natural sleep rhythm.

Some other habits that will encourage a good night's sleep are:

  • Do not use your bedroom for activities other than sleep or sex.
  • Develop a bedtime routine. The hour before bedtime should be one to prepare you for sleep. Take a warm bath or use a mindfulness relaxation technique such as guided meditation or deep breathing exercise.
  • Create a sleep journal. Keeping a daily log allows you to pay attention to your sleep patterns.

If you are interested in learning more about sleep hygiene and finding ways to improve your sleep, consider enrolling in Michigan State University Extension’s SLEEP (Sleep Education for Everyone Program). SLEEP is a six-week program that offers guidelines to help improve sleep hygiene practices, which are behaviors that enhance sleep quality.

Although sleeping when experiencing chronic pain may be challenging, incorporating some sleep hygiene practices into your daily routine can help you get a better night's rest. Finding ways to manage your pain is essential to improve your quality of life. Michigan State University Extension also offers an evidence-based Chronic Pain Personal Action Toward Health (PATH) series, a self-management resource program. Chronic Pain PATH is a six-week self-management workshop designed to help people to take an active role in managing chronic pain. For more information on these programs, complete an online self-referral form.

Did you find this article useful?