If you have chronic pain, you probably have a hard time sleeping. In fact, it’s estimated that 50% to 88% of people who have chronic pain also have sleep disorders.1,2 This week is the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep Awareness week, and in honor of that, today’s blog is dedicated to how meditation can help people who have chronic pain and insomnia.
How can meditation help?
Clinical research suggests that meditation can have measurable physical effects. For example, that meditation has been shown to lower:3
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker in the blood associated with painful inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis
- Cortisol levels; cortisol is a stress hormone that can be found in the blood
These factors—an elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, systemic inflammation, and stress hormones—can affect both pain perception and sleep. Lowering them through meditation may decrease sleep disturbances and increase sleep quality.
Gate Control Theory
The use of meditation is supported by the Gate Control Theory. Under this theory, open nerve gates in the spinal cord allow pain signals to travel to the brain, resulting in pain and suffering. When these gates are closed, the pain signals don't reach the brain, and less pain and suffering is experienced. Meditation, along with things like relaxation training and exercise, is one way to close the gates.
How long will it take for meditation to improve sleep?
It’s not clear how long it takes for meditation to produce results. For example, one study found a significant drop in people’s perception of pain after meditating for 20-minutes each day for just 3 days. Other studies exploring meditation and its effects on pain and sleep suggest it may take weeks or months to see positive results.
What if I don’t want to meditate?
While some people swear by it, other people have a hard time getting into the habit of daily meditation. If this is the case for you, scale back your efforts.
Instead of trying to meditate for 10 or 20 minutes at stretch, take periodic breaks during your day to close your eyes and take 10 deep breaths. Focus on your breath and clear your mind. You can do this almost anywhere—in the shower, at your desk, or when you get into bed.
- Pilowsky I, Crettenden I, and Townley M, “Sleep disturbance in pain clinic patients,” PAIN, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 27–33, 1985. As cited in Jank R, Gallee A, Boeckle M, Fiegl S, Pieh C. Chronic Pain and Sleep Disorders in Primary Care. Pain Research and Treatment. 2017;2017:9081802.
- M. T. Smith, M. L. Perlis, M. S. Smith, D. E. Giles, and T. P. Carmody, “Sleep quality and presleep arousal in chronic pain,” Journal of Behavioral Medicine, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 1–13, 2000. As cited in Jank R, Gallee A, Boeckle M, Fiegl S, Pieh C. Chronic Pain and Sleep Disorders in Primary Care. Pain Research and Treatment. 2017;2017:9081802.
- Pascoe MC, Thompson DR, Jenkins ZM, Ski CF. Mindfulness mediates the physiological markers of stress: Systematic review and meta-analysis. J Psychiatr Res. 2017;95:156-178.