Sleep and Pain
“One domain that we tend to miss, ignore, abuse or lose control of, is our own body.”
During a class on pain education, one of my professors used this quote in his presentation. And in my current practice, I find myself coming back to this concept often.
As most of us know, the three main pillars of good health are: proper nutrition, physical activity and sleep. It is no secret that the present society is greatly motivated by productivity and success. So in order to produce more or to meet our expectations in different aspects of our lives, we might find ourselves neglecting some of these important pillars. Some of you might choose to sacrifice sleep to achieve your goals, but if you find yourself struggling with pain, you could be making it worse.
What is the relationship between sleep and pain?
The link between pain and sleep is bidirectional, meaning:
(a) Lack of sleep can increase pain, and
(b) Pain can disrupt sleep.
But research has been showing that the effect of sleep on pain (a) is stronger than the effect of pain on sleep (b). In other words, sleep disturbance is a stronger predictor of future pain, whereas existing pain is not a strong predictor of sleep disturbances.
Evidence shows that lack of sleep impairs the way we process pain. Our ability to detect pain signals stays the same, but the change lies in the way we interpret these signals. Our pain threshold is reduced and we become more sensitive to pain when we are not well rested.
In addition, lack of sleep limits the body’s ability to repair tissues and restore important cellular components needed for daily physiological functions, thus hindering recovery and increasing one’s risk of developing health issues, such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
What can you do? How can we help?
Here are a few tips on how to improve your sleep:
Practice healthy daily habits
- Avoid eating large meals before bed
- Avoid consuming stimulants in the late afternoon or evening, such as coffee
- Eat a balanced diet
- Be physically active. Studies show that 30 minute walks, 4x/week can improve sleep.
- Adopt effective pain management technique. Talk to a health care professional for tips and advice on management of pain at home or visit your local physiotherapy clinic for treatment.
Set a sleep schedule
- Try to keep a consistent sleep schedule: go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
- Limit naps to 20-30 minutes max.
- Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep/night
Optimize your bedroom
- Adapt your sleeping surface to optimize comfort. If your sleep is disrupted by pain, talk to your physiotherapist. They can recommend some positional pillows or certain sleeping positions.
- Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature
- Keep bedroom quiet. Use earplugs or a white noise machine if needed.
- Keep bedroom dark. Use a sleeping mask, close blinds.
- Limit in-bed activities. Try to use your bed only for sleep and sexual activities.
Set a night routine
- Turn off electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bed
- Practice a low-stimulation activity before going to bed to help you wind-down and clear your mind. This could include a warm bath, reading, journaling, meditation…
And finally, make sleep a priority!
Michelle Daigle, PT