How Chronic Pain and Sleep Interact

Do you know someone who suffers from chronic pain?  It may be back pain, headaches, pelvic pain, fibromyalgia . . . many types of pain sufferers also experience sleep disruption.  Unfortunately, people can get into a cycle in which pain disrupts their sleep, and insufficient sleep makes pain worse.  This may seem logical, but let’s look more specifically at pain and sleep interactions.

A few chronic pain conditions are known for sleep disruption.  One of them is fibromyalgia.  70% of fibromyalgia patients have sleep complaints, and one study found that 27 of 28 had sleep-disordered breathing.  When the breathing was treated with CPAP, patients had a 23-47% improvement in symptoms.  80% of cluster headache patients are found to have obstructive sleep apnea.  For those patients who experience insomnia due to pain, it’s been shown that Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment (CBT-I) will improve their sleep, and may slightly decrease pain.

How to Minimize the Effect of Chronic Pain on Sleep

When people are in pain and their sleep is disrupted, they may feel like they need to catch some ZZZs whenever they can, even during the day. 

  • As best you can, maintain the difference between daytime activity and nighttime rest.  Stay awake and engaged during the day, and be sure to get bright light, preferably outside.  During the night, keep lights out, and minimize your activity.  This will help consolidate your sleep in the night. 
  • If you need to rest or lay down because of pain do so somewhere other than your bed or bedroom.  Make yourself a comfortable spot in the living room, maybe an easy chair or day bed.  This maintains a strong association of your bed as someplace to sleep. 
  • Get tested for sleep disorders if necessary, especially as discussed above. 
  • If you are taking prescription pain medications, be aware that some of them can cause sleep disruption.  You may want to ask your prescribing doctor to review your medications, and switch them if appropriate.