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How Chronic Pain Affects Sleep

by Charise Rohm Nulsen
Nov 12 • 4 min read

If you are one of the estimated 25 million adults suffering from chronic pain, then there is probably nothing you crave more than a restful night of healing sleep. Unfortunately, those who suffer from chronic pain, most notably back pain, often also deal with the challenges of insomnia as a sleep disorder. There are many insomnia causes, and symptoms for insomnia can range in experience, but overall, there are helpful ways to address both chronic pain and insomnia. Meditation has proven to be a very successful tool for managing chronic pain and reducing insomnia.

How chronic pain affects sleep

Chronic pain, particularly back pain, affects sleep in various ways. Chronic pain can induce insomnia by making it more difficult for sufferers to fall asleep. Fighting to find a comfortable position and being distracted from relaxation by bouts of pain can result in frustration and difficulty falling asleep.

Chronic pain also makes staying asleep difficult. Patients with chronic back pain are typically restless at night as they switch from position to position in an attempt to ease their pain. This leads to what is known as “non-restorative sleep.” People who suffer from chronic pain wake up throughout the night or rise too early due to sleep difficulties that prevent them from feeling alert and refreshed in the morning.

Chronic pain and insomnia

In addition to chronic pain, there are many other factors that can cause insomnia, such as stress, a changing work schedule, caffeine intake, medication side effects, and anxiety. There are often a combination of insomnia causes at play when people find themselves struggling with sleep. Those that experience chronic pain may try to manage it with pain relievers or muscle relaxants under the guidance of a trusted doctor.

Most importantly, if you suffer from chronic pain or back pain, it is essential to work on sleep hygiene. The beauty of sleep hygiene is that it is something that you can control on your own with the help of practice, routine, and tracking. Elements of a positive sleep hygiene approach include creating a dark and comfortable sleeping space, going to bed at the same time each night, and avoiding stimulation in the hours before bed such as caffeine and screen time. It is also helpful to follow a routine for sleep preparation each night that signals to your body that it is time to relax. Moving your body and incorporating a mild form of exercise into your day (though not too close to bedtime) can also help combat insomnia. A gentle walk in fresh air also never hinders good sleep.

Meditation to ease pain and reduce insomnia

One of the most powerful tools that you can add to your sleep hygiene routine is a regular meditation practice. Meditation can help both to ease your pain and reduce insomnia, as it creates a feeling of calm and promotes healthy and deep breathing. Meditation can help control the autonomic nervous system, reduce the heart rate, and lower blood pressure; all of which contribute to relaxation.
By focusing your mind on your breathing, you can also take the body’s focus away from back pain and other acute sensations. In addition, you can stimulate the part of the brain that initiates sleep. Meditation can be performed right before bedtime, and it can also be practiced gently in the middle of the night if you are prone to disrupted sleep and waking up throughout the night.

If you are new to meditation, you can start off with short practices of one to two minutes. As you practice more, this can be extended little by little. To practice meditation, simply find a quiet area or lay down in bed, close your eyes, and breathe with a focus on inhaling and exhaling deeply. Many people find it helpful to use a timer or to choose a guided meditation or sleep sounds on BetterSleep to listen to as they practice. If your mind begins to wander, try not to get frustrated. Simply acknowledge the wandering mind, and go back to focusing on inhaling and exhaling. Though meditation does take practice, by tracking your sleep hygiene efforts in your phone or in a bedside notebook, you’ll see that it won’t take long before you begin to feel the benefits and see your progress evolve.

Author Bio

Charise Rohm Nulsen writes about parenting, education, and living a healthy and natural lifestyle. Charise earned her degree in English and Women’s Studies from Boston College, as well as her graduate degree in English Education from Boston University. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her chasing adventure with her children, reading, hiking, snowboarding, and volunteering.

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