Have you given up on getting a good, refreshing night's sleep? Sleep can be a struggle, but finding strategies to improve your sleep is worth the effort.

When you have chronic pain, nights spent tossing and turning can have an added drawback—they make your pain worse.1 Poor quality sleep not only saps your energy and dampens your mood, it can hinder your immune response and even affect your thinking processes.

Lack of sleep—and disrupted sleep—are common with chronic pain. It's estimated that 50% to 80% of people with chronic pain have sleep problems.2

Take a look at these strategies to help you get a better night's sleep.

Tackle sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome

Sometimes a condition unrelated to chronic pain is sabotaging your sleep. If these symptoms sound familiar, talk with your doctor.

  • Sleep apnea. Many people with this common condition have no idea they have it. Spouses or roommates are often the first to suspect something's wrong. Sleep apnea causes breathing to stop or airflow to be limited multiple times a night.

    Not surprisingly, these sleep interruptions can make you feel tired during the day. Use of opioid medications—also called painkillers or narcotics—may make sleep apnea more likely.3 In addition to sleepiness, sleep apnea symptoms include having a dry throat or mouth, morning headaches, and snoring.

  • Restless legs syndrome. Uncomfortable sensations in the legs combined with an urge to move the legs are common with restless legs syndrome. Symptoms can occur day or night, but usually are most extreme when sitting or lying down at night, making it hard to get to sleep. The legs may also twitch or jerk frequently when you're asleep. Daytime fatigue or tiredness are the typical result.

Both these conditions are treatable and may be eased by making some lifestyle changes as well.

Adjust your routine

Getting more restorative sleep may require some changes in your everyday habits. Try some or all these ideas:

  • Exercise as much as you can. Your pain may limit what you can do, but working some exercise into your day will help you sleep better later on. It's fine to do light exercises in short spurts, if a long walk or bike ride is too much. Some people find exercising in a warm pool an ideal option, since the water helps support the body's weight.

  • Power down before bedtime. Developing a relaxing ritual each night can help your body prepare for sleep. Shut down your laptop, tablet, and smartphone well before bedtime; that electronic glow can confuse your mind by mimicking daylight, keeping you awake longer.

  • Let your smartphone lull you to sleep. Playing games and checking email or Facebook are a bad idea before bed, but your phone may have a more useful purpose at night. If you struggle to drift off to sleep, take a look at the array of sleep-enhancing apps—some of them free. You can choose soft melodies, soothing short stories, or relaxing nature sounds.

  • Practice deep breathing. Taking slow, deep breaths can help you relax. One simple technique starts with breathing in deeply through the nose, counting to 10, then exhaling slowly through the mouth. Taking deeper breaths has another benefit. People in pain often take shallow breaths, which can worsen pain and limit the oxygen needed for clear thinking.

If these strategies don’t work for you, a prescription or over-the-counter sleep aid may be useful. Some people also use herbal supplements such as melatonin or valerian.

Be sure to check with the doctor first, though. Sleep medications can depress the nervous system, and could cause a life-threatening reaction if they are combined with an opioid or alcohol. Herbal medicines can cause problems, too, by interfering with other medications.

References:

  1. Schrimpf M, Liegl G, Boeckle M, Leitner A, Geisler P, Pieh C. The effect of sleep deprivation on pain perception in healthy subjects: a meta-analysis. Sleep Med. 2015;16(11):1313-20.

  2. Cheatle MD, Foster S, Pinkett A, Lesneski M, Qu D, Dhingra L. Assessing and Managing Sleep Disturbance in Patients with Chronic Pain. Sleep Med Clin. 2016;11(4):531-541.
  3. Guilleminault C, Cao M, Yue HJ, Chawla P. Obstructive sleep apnea and chronic opioid use. Lung. 2010;188:459-468.