How Pain Affects Sleep

How Pain Affects Sleep

Most of us suffer some kind of pain from time to time. Fortunately for many people, pain is a temporary problem which affects sleep for a short period of time. This is known as acute pain and could be as a result of an injury such as a broken bone or minor burn. For others, and particularly as we get older, certain long term chronic conditions can have detrimental affects on sleep, causing us to have interrupted, disturbed nights. Lack of sleep itself can result in impaired recovery and many physical symptoms including aches and pains, muscle stiffness and general soreness. Studies have revealed that poor sleep can result in increased sensitivity to pain in certain chronic conditions whereas in contrast, good sleep can ease chronic pain.

When we sleep, we go through 4 different phases of sleep. These are phase 1 and phase 2 NREM (N1 and N2) sleep, most commonly known as light sleep, phase 3 NREM (N3) sleep, commonly known as deep sleep and phase 4 REM sleep, commonly known as dream sleep. During light sleep, the slightest sound, movement or change in our environment can disturb us, whereas when we are in a deep sleep, the loudest noise would not wake us up. When we’re in the light sleep phase, if we suffer chronic pain, it is likely to wake us up.  

As we get older, our sleep patterns change and are made up of mainly light sleep and dream sleep. After around our mid 60s we have very little deep sleep. This means that our sleep is more easily disturbed and pain can be one of the factors for this. Pain which would not have disturbed us had we been in deep sleep will now wake us because we now have mainly light sleep. To compensate for this lack of sleep, people often take naps during the day and go to bed and get up at irregular times. These actions inhibit the chances of getting a long, undisturbed night’s sleep so a continuous cycle of sleepless nights ensue. Instead, we need to break the cycle by having a regular routine for bed times, and a regular time for getting up and avoid the daytime napping.  Avoiding caffeine, alcohol and screen use before going to bed will also help improve the likelihood of having a good night’s sleep.  

Lack of sleep exaggerates feelings of sadness and anger and can result in higher levels of stress. This in turn makes us more likely to be unable to sleep. Having a good, undisturbed night’s sleep helps improve our mood and reduces irritability. It can also result in chronic pain being more manageable.  This doesn’t mean that the pain disappears - it just becomes less of an issue because when you’re in a good mood you are more able to deal with it. It also means that you are unlikely to suffer the other physical symptoms related solely to lack of sleep.

So to recap, what can we do to help improve sleep?

1.  Avoid caffeine, excess alcohol and screen use late at night. 

2.  Don’t be tempted to sleep in for hours just because you had a bad night - this will interfere with the next night’s sleep.

3.  Avoid daytime naps - this will affect the ability to sleep at night.

4.  Have regular bed times and regular times to get up.

5.  Speak to your doctor and get the medical help you need.  Do not suffer in silence.

Taking these steps will help improve the likelihood of having a good continuous night’s sleep, resulting in a happier mood. This leaves us more able to cope with pain and more likely that the next night’s sleep will also be good, thereby breaking the cycle of poor nights. 

Ultimately, ensure you speak to your doctor who can help resolve sleep issues. There are many options available and these can be tailored to suit the individual.

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