Can I sleep the pain away?

Can I sleep the pain away?

We all know there are certain things we need to ensure a healthy lifestyle – eating the right food (including in the right amounts), getting enough exercise as well as making sure we’re getting enough sleep.  The difficulty is if we’re in pain (especially chronic pain) these can be harder for us to do.

While I would never profess to be an expert in nutrition or exercise, I am an expert in sleep.  So I have seen research and evidence that suggest there’s a bi-directional relationship between pain and sleep. If we’re in pain, the chances are we’re going to struggle to sleep, but also, if we’re not getting enough sleep, there’s research to suggest that we’re then going to feel that pain more intensely.

The longer the pain continues, potentially the longer our sleep difficulties last, which then becomes a vicious circle.

How does pain affect our sleep (or vice versa)

While most of us are well aware of the cognitive impairments we feel when we have not slept well (whether due to short or long-term sleep deprivation), sleep also plays a significant role in our physical health as well.

It’s thought that changes to our nervous system when we have not received the quality and quantity of sleep we need could lead to oversensitivity, meaning our tolerance to pain is lower. Not getting enough sleep can also increase inflammation, which can exacerbate existing conditions.

Our coordination is also affected, so we are more likely to injure ourselves even while carrying out simple tasks, like picking something up from the floor awkwardly, for example. While we sleep, our bodies repair and rejuvenate, so if we’re not getting enough of it, we may find that it takes us longer to recover from these niggly injuries, as well as more serious injuries.

For many, the pain is sufficient enough that we take medication to help alleviate some or all of the sensations. The difficulty is, that while they may have a sedative effect, helping to relax our muscles, thus reducing the pain, they can actually impact the quality of the sleep we manage to get.

Of course, I am by no means suggesting you cease taking any prescribed medication, however, it could be worth discussing what you’re taking and when with your GP and how it might be affecting your sleep. After all, sometimes ‘some’ sleep is better than ‘no’ sleep.

How can I help my sleep?

While our individual difficulties with sleep can be just as complex as our pain, there are some things that you can try to help improve your sleep.

Have a routine

As humans, we are creatures of habit. Our circadian rhythm, or natural body clock, likes consistency. So by going to bed around the same time each night and waking at (and getting up at!)  approximately the same time each morning, we can help to entrain our circadian rhythm, which means we will naturally start to feel sleepy around the same time each night and more likely to wake refreshed in the morning around the same time as well.

Bedtime routines aren’t just for children

Again, as creatures of habit, our brains like to know what’s coming next. So by doing the same simple tasks in the same order before bed each night, again we are helping to entrain our circadian rhythm.

This routine doesn’t need to be anything fancy. Simply washing your face, brushing your teeth, changing into nightwear and reading a few pages before turning off the light can be enough to signal to our brains that it is now time to sleep.

Make sure your bedroom is comfortable and relaxing

This may appear a fairly obvious point, but one that many of us overlook. Ensuring our beds and pillows are supportive and comfortable enough for us to lay on for approximately 8 hours a night is of paramount importance, especially when struggling with pain, which can be made worse by a poor sleeping position.

Also making sure that the room is as uncluttered as possible (although often easier said than done!) can help us switch off when the time comes for us to fall asleep.

Try to relax

Again, this may initially appear to be a fairly obvious suggestion. However, it is often very easy for us to stress and worry around bedtime, or during the night because we ‘know’ we are not going to sleep, which then becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

I would like to suggest instead, that you simply enjoy being laid in a comfortable position (or as comfortable as you can be), with the opportunity to relax and enjoy the time without distraction.

Many find that practising relaxation techniques including mindfulness can be really beneficial while trying to fall asleep. One of my favourites is something called ‘Progressive Muscle Relaxation’ or Bodyscan Technique, which also has evidence to suggest it is useful for sufferers of chronic pain.

This involves tensing and relaxing separate muscle groups in a systematic fashion, working your way up your body, from your feet to your head. While you can do it on your own, to begin with it can be useful to follow a guided version, which talks you through how to do it. The one I personally use can be found here:

When sleep is a real pain

It can be worth reminding ourselves though, that often if we wake due to pain, it’s our body cleverly encouraging us to change our sleeping position. Had we not moved and laid prone in the same position for longer, the pain may well have been worse upon waking.

Should you wish to find out more about the use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia and how it can help pain sufferers sleep, I would love to hear from you. You can contact me by email at or by visiting my website

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