Health & Wellness Articles

Sleeping Soundly with Chronic Pain

7 Ways to Sleep Better Now

If you live with chronic pain, whether from pounding headaches, an autoimmune disorder or an old injury gone awry, you know how difficult it can be to get to sleep. And when you can’t rest, pain increases, making it harder and harder to break the cycle of escalating pain and sleeplessness.

Pain doesn’t just make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep, but can also impact your quality of sleep. For example, you may sleep less efficiently, spending less time in the most restorative phases of sleep.
Yet sleep has so many health benefits beyond staving off pain. It helps the brain learn and remember new things, bolsters the immune system, keeps moods stable and reduces stress. ­­­­­­Restful sleep can even reduce the intensity and duration of pain. So, how can people with pain take charge of sleep? Try the tips below to take the stress out of bedtime and harness healthy ZZZs.

Adjust your pillow
If you have neck or back pain, sleeping on your stomach can exacerbate your problem because it causes your spine to arch and your neck to twist. Your sleeping position should take any health conditions (such as acid reflux) into account, so check with your physician before switching your routine.

Ready for a change? Body pillows can help reinforce a new sleeping position by preventing you from tossing and turning. If you have back pain, sleeping on your back with a pillow under your knees can take pressure off of the spine. Holding a body pillow between your knees can also prevent those bony joints from touching and help align your hips for greater comfort.

If you have neck pain, an orthopedic (contoured) pillow can help provide support. Remember that any time you sleep, your positioning is important, so consider a travel pillow if you have a long flight or if you plan to sleep while riding in the car.

Practice Mindfulness
If you have a hard time turning your attention away from pain while lying in bed,  remind yourself that a thought is just an idea; you don’t have to believe in it or act on it. Instead, try this simple, pain-reducing exercise:  
  • Set a timer for 5 minutes.
  • Find a comfortable position to lie down.
  • Focus on your lungs expanding and contracting as your breathe in and out for a few moments.
  • Put yourself in neutral frame of mind. It may help to imagine cares and worries from the day sailing or floating away.
  • Observe your thoughts without labeling them "good" or "bad."
  • If a negative thought ("This pain will never end" or "The pain is too awful, I can’t bear it") pops up, acknowledge it, then turn your attention back to your breathing.
We know that the brain and body are connected, and stress, depression and anxiety play a part in how we perceive pain. Try allowing yourself to experience these thoughts without embracing them to prime your body for healing, restorative sleep.

Relieve Muscle Tension
Carve out time in your schedule for pain-management techniques that work for you, such as a hot bath, an ice or heating pack or a few minutes of slow, even breathing. Regular relaxation rituals, such as calming music or aromatherapy (try lavender to aid sleep), relax aching muscles to break the cycle of pain and help you drift off to sleep more easily.

Get Strategic
Simple sleep hygiene, or the habits you follow around bedtime, can make a big difference in how well you sleep. When pain is bothersome, it can be easy to overlook these basics. But the fewer factors you have to contend with in addition to pain, the more likely you'll be able to fall asleep and stay asleep. Remember to:
  • Limit environmental noise or wear earplugs.
  • Make your bed a place for sleep and sex only, not work or screen media.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day (even on the weekends).
  • Avoid long naps, especially in the late afternoon and evening
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine intake in the hours before bed.
  • Exercise regularly, but avoid working out within three hours of your bedtime.
  • Limit time spent staring your computer, phone, TV or other screen before bed.
  • Don't share your bed--or your room--with pets, which can disrupt sleep.
Rethink Your Attitude
Thinking about pain frequently and dwelling on its negative effects on your life can make it harder to go to sleep. Scheduling a fun distraction, even something as simple as reading a favorite magazine, can take your mind off worrisome pain and make it easier to fall asleep.

Consider Supplements
Sleep-promoting supplements, such as melatonin, may help you get much-needed shut eye without a prescription. Gather information about how tiredness impacts your pain and daily activities and consult a healthcare provider to see if an over-the-counter product could help.

Rule Out Other Underlying Conditions
When pain is out of control, sleep may be impossible. Talk to your physician about your daily pain levels and how best to balance day-to-day function with pain relief. Ask specifically about pain that spikes around bedtime, and how you might use medications for nighttime pain relief (as compared to your during-the-day regimen) if appropriate.

Even a quick chat with a general practitioner during a routine physical can help by ruling out sleep-limiting conditions such as sleep apnea, and ensure that existing medications you may be taking aren't interfering with your sleep.

Chronic pain can have so many implications for daily life, but chronically poor sleep doesn’t have to be one of them. Some sleep loss may be inevitable on bad days, but practicing good sleep habits on a regular basis will help you break the cycle of poor sleep and increased pain, and keep overall pain levels manageable.

Boody, Elisa. "Lavender as a Sleep Aid," Vanderbilt University Psychology Department, accessed on April 22, 2013.

Edwards, Robert R., Almeida, David M., Klick, Brenda, Haythornthwaite, Jennifer A., Smith, Michael T. "Duration of Sleep Contributes to Next-Day Pain Report in General Population," PAIN, 2008 (202-207).
Harvard Medical School, "Importance of Sleep: Six Reasons Not to Scrimp on Sleep,", accessed on April 22, 2013.
Health Promotion and Wellness,"Sleep,", accessed on April 22, 2013.
Healthy Sleep, "Benefits of Sleep,", accessed on April 22, 2013.
International Association for the Study of Pain, "Chronic Pain Management: Measurement-Based Step Care Solutions," December 2012.
Plante, David T., Sewell, Andrew R., Price, Bruce H., Cunningham, Miles. "Sleep, Fatigue and Pain: The Triad of Functional Somatic Syndromes." McLean Annals of Behavioral Neurology, 2006, 1:1-9).
UC Health Line, "Certain Sleeping Positions Can Impact the Quality of Your Rest,", accessed on April 22, 2013.
University of Utah Health Care, "Adjusting Your Attitude about Chronic Pain May Help You Sleep,", accessed on April 22, 2013.
Zhdanova, Iran V., Lynch, Harry J., Wurtman, Richard J. "Melatonin: A Sleep-Promoting Hormone," American Sleep Disorders Association, July 1997, 899-907.

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Member Comments

  • I have slept with a pillow between my knees for years and it really helps. My pillow is also a great pillow for neck and headaches.
  • Thanks for the tips!
  • Sigh. This article didn't help any.
    I can tell you I am doing all of the above and still not getting any sleep. Not because of my Dog either. It is my husband who sits up most the night playing video games and then when he does fall asleep he is a thrasher. I go to bed around 9 at the latest every night and I read a chapter in a book and then it is lights out. I fall asleep then I am awakened either by the hubby thrashing, trying to play chase the bone-bone with the dog (ie hiding it under my pillow even though I am asleep) or my bladder...uggghhh

    I am in between doctors and rheumatologists at the moment. I see the spine specialist the first, then the pain specialist the 2nd and follow-up with the neurosurgeon the 7th. But a major appointment with the Breast Specialist I had to cancel as I had no ride. I live in a rural community and I have to see Specialists three hours away from me . our van will not make it and when it can our family has to pay for our fuel since we are both disabled and unable to work. Although, I am trying to get my Website and online boutique up and running. Trying the keyword--like since September 20th. My PC got hacked with Ransomware.

    Right now I have two bulging discs pushing on my Spinal Cord and in the same two places I have Stenosis. I also have Arthritic Damage moderately blocking off two nerve roots. I have just been diagnosed with Interstitial Cystitis (IC) as well. I have been battling a Chronic Sinus Infection for over two full years now as my doctor refused to give me an antibiotic even though it meant my having to put off my Psoriatic Arthritis Treatment. So I firmly believe that this is where the bony arthritic damage came from. So I put in a complaint and the hospital decided to back her up as she has accepted a full-time position with them. So now I am transferring to another doctor in the same clinic. As for my rheumatologist, I was transferring to one that is closer at the family's request and well, she is the only one in the Valley and is so backed up on her referrals I am not able to get into to be established with ...
    I disagree about not allowing pets in your room at night. I think pets are members of your family. Having them nearby when you sleep can relax you and help you feel safer. Get them more than one bed and put them throughout the house, so they have options. And when it's cooler, consider a heated bed or one which reflects their body heat. Put that in a warm enough spot, and that will be the go-to bed!

    If you keep the same schedule each day, it is very unlikely they will disturb your sleep unless they really need something. And if that's food, perhaps you can leave a little out before you go to sleep.
    My neck has taken a big turn in the past some weeks and sleeping is the most unhappy part of my day. The pain is quite bearable during the day, but becomes intolerable when I lie down and wakes me up a number of times during the night. I have been sleeping on a pillow and though the pain is not as bad as if I sleep on another pillow it is still terrible! The pillow I have is the kind with the ridge which is supposed to support the neck, but I have never been capable to get relaxed about it. Does anybody know of any other best pillows for neck pain?

    My neck has taken a big turn in the past some weeks and sleeping is the most unhappy part of my day. The pain is quite bearable during the day, but becomes intolerable when I lie down and wakes me up a number of times during the night. I have been sleeping on a pillow and though the pain is not as bad as if I sleep on another pillow it is still terrible! The pillow I have is the kind with the ridge which is supposed to support the neck, but I have never been capable to get relaxed about it. Does anybody know of any other best pillows for neck pain?
    I use a sound machine to go to sleep and stay asleep. The best setting that has been proven for good sleep is the RAIN setting. (Not ocean kept me up all night).
  • Should be fibromyalgia pain in my last comment. It is also nice to know that what I'm feeling and going through can be explained..I'm off sleep mess after 2.5 years and will definitely try these tips out. Thank you!
  • Just laying here not sleeping because the fibrous pain is bsd today and saw this article. I do some of these but could do more
  • I had TKR and of course had a difficult time finding a comfortable position w/o pain.
    I wish I had read your article before. I am going to look into your suggestions.
  • I normally do not endorse products on sparkpeople but I would wake up every morning with my neck pain exasperated until I bought a "my pillow". I bought it at Bed Bath and Beyond with a 20% off coupon and still thought the price was a little steep. After a month I am so glad I purchased it. I go to sleep with more neck pain then when I wake up. It actually gets better at night.

About The Author

Robin Donovan Robin Donovan
Robin Donovan is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer and magazine journalist with experience covering health, medicine, science, business, technology and design.

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