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Being in pain can cause significant disturbances to our sleep, leaving us restless, uncomfortable and frustrated throughout the night. It’s an awful Catch 22, given that having a good nights’ sleep is recommended to help relieve pain and promote healing and repair. With adequate sleep being an important part of the overall holistic bigger picture when it comes to recovering from pain and injury, here’s a look into the connection between sleep and pain, and what practical steps you can start implementing at home today to improve your sleep quality.

Both Sleep And Pain Play Vital Roles In Your Life

As a bit of background, both pain and sleep play crucial roles for survival in your daily life: 

  • Feeling pain motivates us to act to stop or remove yourself from whatever is causing you pain, in order to protect your body from harm and damage. Pain can be acute (short-lived) or chronic (persisting for months and longer).
  • Sleep is a biologically necessary process by which your body maintains homeostasis (its internal balance), optimises its function, and allows time to heal and repair. Beyond just being able to fall asleep, the overall process of sleeping is a carefully controlled and highly regulated series of cyclical ‘states’, which we need to go through to achieve the maximum benefits of sleep.

The Relationship Between Sleep And Pain

There is a very strong scientific link between sleep and pain with the broad negative impacts on a person’s health and well-being when there are impairments in the systems that regulate sleep or pain being well documented. Sleep complaints are present in up to 88% of people with chronic pain, and at least half of all people that suffer from insomnia (where you struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep) suffer from chronic pain. 

Part of the explanation of why pain makes it difficult to fall asleep rests with your nervous system. In order to fall asleep, our nervous system must be calm. Unfortunately, having pain means that we have a much more active nervous system. From a sleep perspective, short sleep times, fragmented sleep and an overall poor quality has been shown to cause a heightened sensitivity to pain the following day.,

Can Improving Our Sleep Quality Reduce Our Pain?

Encouragingly, many studies have found that in the long-term, being able to improve your sleep quality may help improve pain. While it’s not an easy change, especially when you’re stuck in the vicious sleep-pain-disturbance cycle, here are some things you can start implementing into your routine today to support your sleep – and hence your long-term well-being.

1. Good sleep starts in the morning

Setting ourselves up for success and good sleep starts long before the sun goes down. Research shows that spending enough time outdoors in the sunlight (and getting enough vitamin D), engaging in regular exercise of varying intensities, and following a healthy diet throughout the day can best help prepare your body for a better nights’ sleep.

  • Spending over 4 hours per day outdoors is linked to better chances of normal, healthy sleep and less pain.
  • Increasing time spent outdoors has additionally been found in large-scale studies to be associated with better mood and a lower lifetime risk of depression, as well as improved sleep.
  • Eating more saturated fat and less fibre from foods like fruit, vegetables and whole grains has been linked to reductions in the deep, restorative kind of sleep. Eating more simple carbohydrates (white bread, pasta and sugary foods) is linked to more regular waking through the night.
  • Exercise has long been associated with better sleep in the research, also sharing a bidirectional relationship.

2. Make sleep a priority

When you’re in pain, it makes sense that you may feel anxious about the restless night ahead and employ subconscious or conscious tactics to avoid going to sleep and delay your bedtime. Having solid routines, including a consistent bedtime, has been shown to have beneficial effects on sleep in both adults and children, so set a dedicated bedtime and make it a priority to stick to it.

3. Avoid screen time and distractions in the bedroom

Your sleep environment is important, and that means keeping your room calm, cool, dark and quiet at night – without any hassles or distractions.

  • Using electronics has shown to interfere with sleep by suppressing the production of melatonin, a natural hormone released in the evening to help you feel tired and ready for sleep.
  • The best bedroom temperature for sleep is 18.3 degrees Celsius, though this may vary by a few degrees from person to person.
  • Light is considered to be the most important external factor affecting sleep according to the Sleep Foundation, with keeping your room too light being linked to disruptions in your circadian rhythm, melatonin levels, and how long you spend in different restorative cycles during your sleep.

4. Try meditation, deep breathing or guided imagery

According to research from Harvard Medical School, mindfulness meditation that involved exercises to help participants focus on their moment-by-moment experiences, thoughts and emotions improved sleep and decreased insomnia better than those who completed a class designed to teach them ways to improve their sleep habits.

Struggling With Pain Or Injury?

While sleep is an important and long-term way to help support your pain levels and your overall health, it’s also important to ensure that you have an evidence-based treatment plan for your pain or injury that is developed by trusted and experienced health professionals. This is where our team can help – book your appointment with us online here.