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Chronic Pain May Be the Biggest Threat to a Good Night's Sleep

Chronic Pain May be Your Biggest Threat to a Good Night’s Sleep

by Leython Williams, PT, DPT, CMTPT1 Comment

Have you considered the link between your sleep and pain you may be experiencing? Recent research suggests that sleep and chronic pain are more closely linked than you might think. Not only does sleep deprivation affect your energy, concentration, and general health, it also can predict and even worsen your pain.

And pain can be a barrier to healthy sleep. Individuals suffering from chronic pain are well-acquainted with sleep debt. According to the Sleep in America poll by the National Sleep Foundation, one in five Americans suffer from chronic pain, and the majority suffer from substandard sleep quality. Additionally, one in four people with chronic pain also has a sleep disorder.

Types of Pain

Pain is defined as an unpleasant sensation that we experience when our sensory neurons convey a message to our brains that something is wrong. Pain can be acute (lasting for a short time) or chronic (recurring or lasting longer than a few months).

Acute pain is sudden and sharp. It is usually caused by something specific and goes away rather quickly when treated. Examples of acute pain include:

  • Cuts
  • Bruises
  • Burns
  • Broken bones
  • Pulled muscles

On the other hand, chronic pain is ongoing and typically lasts at least three months. It is usually caused by an underlying injury or illness and is often not something surgery can address. People with chronic pain describe their pain in many ways, such as aching, burning, shooting, squeezing, stiffness, stinging, and throbbing. Many types of chronic pain are related to the following:

  • Arthritis
  • Nerve pain
  • Cancer
  • Headaches
  • Back pain
  • Fibromyalgia, and more

Pain’s Impact on Sleep & Quality of Life

Chronic pain can severely limit your daily activities, sleep and overall quality of life.

When pain arises at night, it most often interferes with sleep. As a result, those living with chronic pain tend to suffer from long-term sleep debt. In addition to shorter overall sleep time, chronic pain can cause frequent nighttime wakings, leading to less restful sleep and tiredness. The effects of pain medication can also interfere with sleep.

The good news is many people with chronic pain report that their symptoms are decreased with a better night’s sleep!

However, symptoms rarely improve because pain limits the ability to improve sleep. This can create a self-perpetuating cycle of pain, insomnia, anxiety, and even depression, potentially increasing pain sensitivity. Over time, painful conditions worsen and can lead to decreased motivation and disability.

Additionally, sleep disturbances and short sleep durations, resulting in high sleep debt, have been shown to increase inflammation. Inflammation can both increase pain and slow or inhibit the healing process.

Effectively diagnosing, treating, and managing chronic pain is a critical step to getting healthy sleep and having energy for the important things in your life.

Managing Pain for Better Sleep

While relieving pain and improving sleep may require multiple strategies, including self-management techniques, it may be time to consult a clinical professional, such as a physical therapist. Physical therapy may significantly reduce pain and, thus, improve sleep quality and renewed energy. However, only about 10% of people with musculoskeletal injuries who can benefit from physical therapy services are taking advantage of them.

Physical therapists specialize in recognizing movement dysfunction that can result in muscle, joint, and nerve changes. They work with you to identify the cause of your pain and provide an individualized treatment plan, as well as sleep hygiene and position strategies.

People who choose physical therapy as their first treatment option may avoid medical imaging, follow-up visits, medications, specialty referrals, and other interventions such as injections or surgery.

Luckily, direct access legislation makes it easier for people to directly access their physical therapist without a physician’s prescription in many states.

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The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in blog posts represents the opinion of the individual author based on their expertise and experience. The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.

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1 Comment

  1. Beverly DeNune

    Hi Matt: As you know from my previous visits I have chronic pain (aches, etc) in my lower back due to arthritis, spinal stenosis and curvature of the spine. All the steroid injections and ablations I have done over the past year & a half haven’t helped me very much. I still cannot walk any distance and seem to be having issues with balance sometimes. And, I have to say that I’m not very consistent with exercises. My sleep gets disturbed (maybe not because of pain) frequently.

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