How Sleep Affects Chronic Pain

It makes sense that chronic pain would inhibit a good night’s sleep. After all, many of us learned at a young age that even temporary minor aches cause us to toss and turn endlessly, unable to fall asleep due to the distraction of discomfort. However, an increasing number of studies are beginning to show that it’s not a one-way street. As it turns out, insomnia (a term that covers the inability to fall asleep, the inability to stay asleep, and low-quality sleep itself) can further contribute to ongoing pain.

According to various research and studies, nearly 65% of those suffering from chronic pain also suffer from sleep disorders. A lack of Z’s (or even a lack of quality sleep), especially when caused by persisting pain, often causes fatigue, irritability, and depression. These symptoms work not only to exacerbate chronic ailments but also tend to counteract the relieving effects of many common pain medications, further decreasing one’s ability to get some much-needed rest. With chronic insomnia also comes the inability of the body to repair itself, which can allow pain to spread to other areas of the body.

The two most common sleep ailments for those with chronic pain are the inability to fall asleep and the inability to stay asleep. As night ends, your body naturally begins to quiet itself in preparation for sleep. However, as the brain’s activity decreases, the awareness of pain increases (since there is less to distract from it), causing it to feel more severe. This is a major contributing factor to insomnia. Chronic pain also often results in a severe lack of restorative sleep, as bouts of pain can cause an individual to wake up frequently throughout a given night.


Although simple tricks and tips may seem futile, there are several basic steps that the Pain Institute of Southern Arizona recommends to those combating insomnia:

  • Get comfy. While this may sound like a no-brainer, a decent mattress and comfortable bedding can do worlds of good. It’s also important to note that correct sleeping posture can also have a positive impact on chronic pain and its interference with sleep.
  • Turn off the TV. Melatonin is the hormone responsible for the natural rhythm of sleep. When we’re exposed to bright light at night, it inhibits the release of melatonin, making it more difficult to get to sleep.
  • Get into a sleep schedule. Our brains release melatonin 30 minutes before it’s time to go to sleep, but if you go to sleep at a different time every day your brain can’t anticipate your schedule.
  • Relax. Minimizing stress (which is known to enhance sleeping disorders) can encourage your body to sleep.
  • Reduce consumption. While coffee can help to combat fatigue (waking you up after a sleepless night) and alcohol seems to induce sleep, neither one actually does much good in the long run. While safe in moderation, coffee too late in the day can deter the body’s ability to fall asleep, especially in those with pre-existing sleep disorders. Meanwhile, studies have shown that alcohol is actually disruptive to a good night’s sleep.

Talk with your doctor to learn more about the options available to you to help improve the quality of sleep you get each night.

The advice and information contained in this article is for educational purposes only, and is not intended to replace or counter a physician’s advice or judgment. Please always consult your physician before taking any advice learned here or in any other educational medical material.