Sleep Health

How pain can affect your sleep


You might be taking medication for a pre-existing condition which is affecting your sleep. Or you may suffer from chronic pain which is more noticeable at night and less manageable when there is little to distract you. Struggling to sleep because of persistent pain is not easy, it can make you feel frustrated and helpless. But you are definitely not alone. The good news is that there are many things you can do, particularly lifestyle changes, that can help you manage this and in turn help you get a better night’s sleep.

What can I do to manage this? Where do I start?

  • Chronic pain can be managed during the day by taking part in activities or occupying your time and therefore taking your mind off the pain. At night it is a different matter and can be more difficult to manage.
  • At night, relaxation exercises can help distract you from the pain. Try a guided meditation which can be found online or through many apps.
  • Avoid TV, phone screens or anything else mentally stimulating. Sometimes doing mundane tasks such as folding laundry, organising your drawers or just tidying up is not only a form of distraction but can also make you feel more tired and help you sleep.
  • Having a strict bed time and rise time is important. This establishes a routine and sets your body clock so you eventually will naturally go to sleep and wake up around the same time.
  • Sometimes the medication you are taking can make you drowsy during the day, it is best to avoid napping so that it doesn’t interfere with your sleep at night. If you feel like you really need a nap make set an alarm so that it is no longer than 20 minutes.
  • If you suffer from shoulder pain this makes it hard for you to sleep on your side, and not everyone can sleep naturally on their backs. Sleep aids such as the MedCline pillow provides shoulder relief and allows you to sleep on your side without discomfort.
  • Pain in your lower back and knees can also make it difficult to sleep. Putting a pillow between your knees when sleeping on your side or under your knees when sleeping on your back may provide you with relief.
  • What can help is finding a place in your home which can be used as your relaxation space- a space where you can meditate or do other relaxation exercises. It is best that this is not your bedroom so you associate that with sleeping at night.
  • Having a quiet bedroom environment usually promotes better sleep however in the case of chronic pain, you can sometimes only focus on the pain if there is no other stimulation. Sound machines or fan noises have been shown to help as a form of distraction.

Why is physical activity important?

  • Another lifestyle change that has been shown to help is engaging in physical activity. Although you may think that this could make your pain worse in fact it can help with both your pain and getting a good night’ sleep. Just keep in mind your limitations and always listen to your body.
  • Physical activity during the day has been shown to increase your deep sleep, which is the phase of your sleep that is important for physical rest. Even just 20 minutes of activity can boost deep sleep.
  • So where do you start? Which activity do you choose? The answer is easy: start with activities you enjoy! This could be walking, swimming, a relaxing hike in nature, or even just basic stretching.
  • Start planning a stretching routine in the morning or evening to ease muscle tension or joint pain. If you don’t know where to start there are many videos online for basic stretches which can help.
  • Yoga is a powerful tool for managing pain and has been shown to help people with persistent pain from fibromyalgia, lower back pain, arthritis, and many other chronic conditions.
  • Always remember to not engage in physical activity within a few hours of bedtime. Physical activity before sleep can keep you awake.

What are some relaxation exercises that people use to help with pain?

  • Belly Breathing (4-7-8). Put your hand on your stomach and breathe in very deeply feeling your belly expand and rise. When you breathe out relax your upper body, shoulders and chest and feel your belly fall. Try and do this at a pace where you are counting: breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds and breathe out for 8 seconds. Repeat this.
  • The above is also called paced breathing and is a form of meditation which reduces your breath rate and heart rate. This results in you being more relaxed and calm. There are many devices (such as the DoDow) which can help you do this as well.
  • Exercises that focus on calming imagery can be a distraction and in turn can reduce your anxiousness helping you ease into sleep. You can focus on one image and move to the next gradually building a story in your mind.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). This is basically a 2 step process that you can do lying in bed as a night time ritual. First you tense a particular muscle in your body such as your neck and shoulders, then you release the tension and notice how your muscles feel when you relax them. Try and start at the bottom of your body, tensing and relaxing your feet first and gradually move your way up to your neck and face. This can help you feel more relaxed and also ease anxiety.

The power of your mind

  • Your mind is a wonderful thing. It can be the most powerful tool you have to help you manage your pain and have a good night’s sleep.
  • One way you can do this is by practicing mindfulness. This is done by learning how to be fully present and engaged in the moment, noticing your thoughts and feelings at that present moment.
  • You can start doing this by picking something to pay attention to: your breathing, the sounds around you, even tasks such as making your bed. When you get distracted from that moment, guiding yourself back to the present.
  • Sometimes you feel like you’re having a mental battle with your pain, you just want it to be over and rid of it. This is perfectly understandable. Because mindfulness is about accepting what is here and now, it can help you stop having that battle with your pain and stop catastrophizing or always thinking about the negative.
  • So where do you get started? Find a space where you feel comfortable and safe, you can do this on your own or if you need motivation why not have a friend or family member practice mindfulness with you. Start with a 20-45 minute body scan meditation that can be found on many meditation apps.

Are you at risk of sleep apnea?

If you frequently wake up during the night you may have sleep apnea. Take our free sleep assessment to find out.


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