‘Painsomnia’: How to Sleep Better When Pain Keeps You Up at Night

  • By Jennifer Mulder
  • 25 October 2021
  • 6 minute read
'Painsomnia': How to Sleep Better When Pain Keeps You Up at Night | The Health Sessions

This blog post contains some affiliate links to products you may find useful, at no extra costs to you. All opinions are my own. 

Do you find yourself tossing and turning in bed most nights because you can’t find a comfortable position to sleep in? Are aching joints, abdominal pain or endometriosis cramps stopping you from getting a good night’s sleep all too often? Then you might be suffering from painsomnia.

‘Painsomnia’ is the unofficial term for not being able to sleep well due to chronic pain. Studies suggest that 50% to 80% of people with chronic pain also suffer from sleep disturbances. Conditions like arthritis, fibromyalgia, MS and depression are known to cause difficulties with falling or staying asleep all night.

What’s worse, it’s easy to get sucked into a vicious cycle of poor sleep, which then worsens your pain symptoms the next day, making it even harder to fall asleep at night. And as a result, the internal body clock that controls your sleep-wake rhythm can get disrupted, leaving you feeling drowsy during the day and wide awake at night.

So what can you do to prevent or relieve painsomnia?

Sadly, there’s no easy answer, and sometimes the problem can’t be fully solved. The following tips cannot take all of your pain or sleeping problems away, but hopefully they will lead to more restful nights.

Let’s have a look at what you can do to deal better with painsomnia.

'Painsomnia': How to Sleep Better When Pain Keeps You Up at Night | The Health Sessions
All images by cottonbro via pexels.com

How to Prevent and Relieve Painsomnia

1. Ease The Pain

The first step to beat painsomnia is to try to ease the pain, but of course that’s easier said than done. Here are some psychological techniques and practical things you can do to get a little pain relief.

Fine-tune your pain medication.

Ask your doctor or pharmacist about the dosage and timing of your medications if you’re currently taking prescribed drugs. Sometimes a little tweak can soften the sharp edges of your pain, enabling you to fall asleep at night.

However, do not take painkillers for extended periods of time without consulting a medical professional. Not only is it more helpful to treat the underlying cause of your pain than to manage symptoms, you may also develop side-effects or become more dependent on painkillers than you might realize. Instead, add some of the following ways to your pain management tool box to relieve pain naturally.

Try heat therapy.

Applying heat to painful body parts can improve your blood circulation and relax your muscles, which is why it’s commonly used to ease chronic pain. You can take a warm bath – with or without extra health-boosting ingredients – in the evening or bring a hot water bottle or a cherry pit pillow to bed with you. Some people benefit from using an electronic blanket; just be mindful of safety issues like fire prevention.

One important note: heat therapy should never be painfully hot, only comfortably warm.

Find a comfortable sleeping position.

If you suffer from back or neck pain, it’s helpful to choose a sleeping position that takes pressure off your spine by keeping it aligned. Sleeping on the side with a pillow placed between your knees, for example, keeps your legs in a neutral position. You could also lie on your back, with a soft round bolster supporting your knees. Sleeping on your stomach, however, is considered the worst position for your spine, neck and joints.

Use mental techniques to cope well with pain.

No, you can’t magically think your pain away. But your mind actually has a significant impact on your stress levels and muscle tension, which both affect your pain experience and ability to sleep. Thankfully, the reverse is also true: using certain mental techniques can provenly can help your body relax, lower your sensitivity to pain and literally put pain signals to the back of your mind.

You could perform progressive muscle relaxation – a mind-body technique about systematically tensing and relaxing every muscle group in your body – before bed to help beat painsomnia. Doing deep and slow breathing exercises also releases stress, calms your mind and influences pain processing. And visualizations not only take your mind off the pain, they also help your body relax. The patented Flowly app can take you through virtual realities specifically designed for relaxation, resulting in a 46% reduction of reported pain after each session.

2. Cover Your Bedtime Basics

When you’ve struggled with painsomnia for awhile, your sleeping routine can become messed up – even if your pain lessens. So make sure you’ve got your bedtime basics covered.

  • Keep your bedroom dark and comfortably cool to set yourself up for a good night’s sleep. A high-quality, supportive mattress and pillow are also key to preventing painsomnia.
  • Don’t drink caffein after 5PM. Research shows that consuming caffeine even 6 hours before bedtime will reduce your sleep with 1 hour. So avoid coffee, energy drinks or hot chocolate in the evening, and cut down on your overall caffein consumption.
  • Limit your alcohol intake. A glass of wine may make you feel rosy and help you fall asleep, but you’re more likely to wake up several times during the night and not feel rested by morning.
  • Unwind before bed. It’s hard to fall asleep when that phone call, late-night show or Facebook discussion have gotten you all wound up. So set a cut-off time for arousing activities at least one hour before bedtime. That includes limiting the use of electronic devices, because the blue light coming from your screens inhibits the release of the sleep hormone melatonin. Finally, having a consistent bedtime ritual, like sipping chamomile tea or having a bath, will signal to your brain it’s time to get ready for bed.

'Painsomnia': How to Sleep Better When Pain Keeps You Up at Night | The Health Sessions

3. What to Do When Pain Keeps You Up at Night

Even if you follow the advice above, there will still be nights when pain keeps or wakes you up. What’s the wisest thing to do when you can’t sleep at night?

Many sleep experts advise you to get out of bed if you haven’t fallen asleep after 20 minutes. That way, you don’t start to associate bedtime with worrying, tossing and turning. Negative thought patterns around sleeping are known to only worsen your insomnia. So hop out of bed if you don’t drift off and start to ruminate about not sleeping. It is important that you keep the lights down low and stimulating activities to a minimum. Don’t get sucked in a thrilling show you can’t stop watching, but have some warm milk and listen to audiobooks instead.

But in my experience, getting out of bed isn’t always the best option when living with chronic pain. Getting up and moving around may require more energy and mobility than you can summon. If that’s the case for you, try to get as much rest as you can, even if you aren’t able to fall asleep. Do a guided meditation, perform a mindful body scan or play some mind games while your body rests.

Are you team ‘Get up’ or team ‘Rest as much as possible’ when pain keeps you up at night? What helps you most to prevent or relieve painsomnia? 

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