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5 Reasons Chronic Pain Interferes with Sleep


Mar. 27, 2020 Psychology Today

Does chronic pain prevent you from getting good sleep? No…it does not.

Yet, many (if not all) chronic pain sufferers believe that they must first rid themselves of their pain in order to sleep better. Unfortunately, this is a false belief. When it comes to getting quality sleep, identifying the roadblocks getting in the way of sleep is actually the first step. 

The body is designed for sleep. Therefore, what we must do to facilitate it, is to get out of our own way. This paves the way to achieve sleep naturally. Although pain-sufferers can get trapped in a cycle of sleeping poorly (increasing their perception of pain and further disrupting their sleep), this cycle can indeed be broken.

Let’s assume that you are a pain-sufferer, only getting two hours of sleep per night. Your sleep problem did not start suddenly—it developed gradually over months, or even years. The same timetable occurs for recovering a healthy sleep pattern; as you begin to make changes in your habits you will see improvements in your sleep quality, but it takes time for this to happen.

Here are five habits known to negatively affect restful sleep for chronic pain-sufferers: 

1. Eating at the wrong time of day. 

Many chronic pain sufferers have fallen out of the pattern of getting up early in the morning; consequently, they do not eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the first 2/3 of the day. Yet, our eating schedule sets our biological clock for many things, including our sleep cycle.

Eating your first meal of the day in the morning increases your metabolism. This in turn starts the digestive cycle; as a result, energy is made available to keep you alert and active during the day. A person who eats only in the evening or at night develops a biological clock that is off-balance. This can distort the sense of being awake, hungry, alert, and…sleepiness.

2. Taking medications and/or drugs that interfere with sleep.

Opioids—one of the more common medications used to treat chronic pain—interfere with the brain’s ability to enter both REM and the deeper, restorative stages of sleep.

Those who use marijuana in the evening or throughout the day to manage pain develop  less slow-wave sleep, worse sleep efficiency, and shorter periods of REM sleep than non-users. Alcohol has often been used as a sleep aid, but it too disrupts sleep. A well-known depressant, alcohol also decreases alertness and memory storage in the day following its consumption due to disrupted sleep patterns.  

3. Moving less to reduce pain levels.  

The pain cycle that interferes with quality sleep also serves as a trap for chronic pain patients. See if this scenario sounds familiar: a person begins to experience ongoing pain; as a result, they assume that moving less by not exercising, stretching, or walking will limit their pain.

However, moving less does not, in fact, limit pain. What it does do is lead to muscle and nervous system dysfunction, which then leads to muscle spasms and shooting pain. Shooting pain leads to guarding behavior, which results in even less movement. There’s no question that quality sleep requires a day full of activity, movement, and stress-reducing activities like exercise, walking, and stretching. The less you move, the more poorly you will sleep.

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