Chronic Pain & Sleep: Tips for more & better ZZZs

5 tips that can help you fall and stay asleep despite your condition

By 
Terri Leichty
Reviewed by 
Dr. Abigail Hirsch, Ph.D
May 8, 2021
5
 min. read

Most of us have been there before. It’s the middle of the night, and the room you lay in is dark and quiet. Everyone else in your house is fast asleep; you can even hear the dog softly snoring. Yet, there you lay, wide awake, tossing and turning, trying to find the best sleeping position, wishing you could fall asleep but filled with dread because you know you’re going to be fatigued and exhausted the following day. It’s an awful feeling – almost torturous, honestly – that is compounded because you also suffer from chronic pain. It’s a double whammy and a vicious cycle that is very difficult to break: the pain keeps you awake while staying awake keeps your body from experiencing the restorative rest that it so desperately needs to heal.

So what can you do to fall asleep easier, stay asleep, and achieve better quality sleep? What steps can you take to help ensure that you begin each day feeling refreshed and well rested? Once disorders like sleep apnea that physically impede your ability to rest properly are ruled out, there are actionable things you can do to improve this part of your life. Read on for five tips that can help you reduce how much chronic pain affects your sleep.

Change the Way You Think About Sleep

The way you think can dramatically impact the way you feel and act. This is a core tenet of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) (1), which is a form of psychotherapy that is based on the idea that reframing the way you think about something can result in positive mood and behavioral changes. This concept can be applied to sleep too. Referred to as cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), the goal of this type of therapy is to get rid of the undesirable thoughts and worries that keep you awake at night. Found to be effective in 70-80% of the people who practice it, there are advantages to using CBT-I to improve your sleep. Namely, there are no side effects to worry about because no drugs are involved. Plus, once you’ve changed the way you think when it comes to sleep, this is a long-term solution that will continue as long as you maintain these new thought patterns.(2)

Relax

Another way you can improve your chances of sleeping better at night despite your chronic pain is to learn and use different relaxation methods. There are many kinds of relaxation techniques that can be used, including deep breathing, guided imagery, meditation, and specific muscle group relaxation, among others. Even practicing yoga can help you introduce more relaxing and calm moments into your life. Your best bet is to work with a professional, like a Lin Health Coach, over multiple sessions to learn about these varying methods and to figure out what works best for you and your condition. Used in conjunction with CBT-I, you can learn to more effectively master both your thoughts and the relaxation of your physical body, which will help you to fall asleep easier and stay asleep.

Sleeping woman illustration

Practice Good Sleep Habits

When it comes to sleep hygiene, you’ve probably heard all the typical suggestions before. But they bear repeating because if they are implemented correctly and consistently, they should help improve your sleep despite the pain you feel. Some habits that you should try to establish in your everyday life include:

* Put in place a regular and consistent bedtime and wake time. Staying up until midnight or later and sleeping in until whenever you feel like it on the weekends and then trying to go to bed at 9pm and getting up at 6am on Monday is a recipe for sleeplessness. Try to pick a reasonable bedtime and then stick to it (2). Make it a routine and do the same with a time that you decide to wake up every morning. Consistency is your friend.

* Turn off all electronic devices and screens 30 minutes before your bedtime. You’ve probably read this on your phone before – the blue light that screens emit tricks your body into thinking it’s daytime. So make an effort to stop looking at your cell phone, iPad, computer, and even TV when you’re starting to wind down for the day. Picking up and reading a good old-fashioned book is a great way to entertain yourself instead of using a screen.

* Make sure your bedroom is dark, cool, and quiet. It might seem obvious, but the state of the room you’re trying to sleep in can have a big impact on how well you sleep. Eliminate as much light as you can, keep your room’s temperature on the cooler side (preferably between 60- and 67-degrees Fahrenheit), and try to keep things quiet (3). If your spouse snores, try earplugs and/or a white noise machine, both of which can help to drown out sounds. If this quieter, less distracting atmosphere draws more attention to the pain you feel, consider trying CBT-I and learning how to better control the thoughts you have both about sleep and pain.

Avoid Caffeine, Alcohol, and Exercising Close to Bedtime

When you’re getting closer to calling it a day, try not to consume any caffeinated beverages (like soda, coffee, or tea) or foods (like chocolate!) Doing so will rev up your system and make it difficult to both fall asleep and stay asleep uninterrupted. Also, try to  avoid drinking alcohol before bed. Although it might help you fall asleep, it can disrupt your sleep later on as your liver works hard to metabolize it. And while exercising earlier in the day is great to tire out your body, don’t do it too close to your bedtime because it can negatively affect your sleep. A short walk in the evening after dinner, however, can be beneficial as a stress-reliever and to help lessen lower back pain.  

Eat Foods For Dinner That Promote Sleep

Given this article has already covered foods and drinks that you should not eat too close to bedtime, you may be wondering if there are any foods that aid in improving sleep. And the answer is yes! Believe it or not, studies have found that there are a variety of foods that can help promote sound sleep (4). These items contain tryptophan, which helps produce the sleep regulating hormone serotonin. These foods include certain carbohydrates like rice, fruits like kiwis and cherries, and whole foods like milk, shellfish, and fatty fish (e.g., salmon and sardines). While you’ll first want to check with your doctor to confirm that none of these foods will negatively impact your condition[a] or any medications you’re taking, consider trying them to see if they improve your sleep at all.

It can be harder for people like us who deal with chronic pain to sleep well. Not only are we trying to overcome the typical sleep difficulties that everyone else experiences, but we’re also struggling to contain our pain too. This isn’t easy, but there are multiple ways you can improve the odds that you will fall asleep quicker and stay asleep. In particular, don’t discount the power of your mind when it comes to both sleep and pain. If you’d like help implementing these habits or want to learn more about the mind-body connection when it comes to pain, check out Lin Health. At Lin, we make sure to get to the root cause of your pain and can pair you with a personal health coach who can implement effective CBT-based care plans to help tone down your pain.

Looking for a better way out of chronic pain?
You’re in the right place.
1. How to Beat Insomnia When You Have Chronic Pain. (2020, August 10). Cleveland Clinic healthessentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/managing-insomnia-for-those-with-chronic-pain/
2. Padgett, A. (2020, June 16). Helpful Tips for Sleeping With Chronic Pain. Augusta Pain Center. https://augustapaincenter.com/helpful-tips-sleeping-chronic-pain/
3. Pacheco, D. (2020, October 29). The Best Temperature For Sleep. Sleep Foundation. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/bedroom-environment/best-temperature-for-sleep#:~:text=The%20best%20bedroom%20temperature%20for,for%20the%20most%20comfortable%20sleep
4. George, M. (2020, April 15). 5 Little-Known Tips for Sleeping With Chronic Pain. SPINE-health. https://www.spine-health.com/blog/5-little-known-tips-sleeping-chronic-pain

Don’t miss a thing!

Know more, feel better. Sign up for our newsletter and keep up with the latest in pain science.

You subscribed. Nice one.

KNOW MORE. FEEL BETTER.

Thank you for signing up. Keep your eyes peeled for Lin updates in your inbox.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.