8 tips for sleeping with chronic pain

Sleeping with neck-down central nerve pain is difficult. But I do it—most nights.

I haven’t always been able to sleep through it. In the past, pain would consume my thoughts as everything got quieter usually. I would try to drown out the burning nerve pain with TV and medications. If I went to bed late enough, I would be so tired I would fall asleep, only to wake a few hours later. GRRRR!! I was so tired but couldn’t stay asleep. After discovering how much better the days were when I got more sleep, I started investigating what the best methods were for sleeping all night.

Here are a few tips I have learned over the past 13 years that help me consistently sleep through the night:

1. Having a pre-bedtime routine is very helpful! I don’t always discipline myself to slow down, but when I do my sleep is much improved. My routine varies, but the following are some things I have tried and found helpful:

2. Breathing
I regularly use breathing from the diaphragm to induce relaxation and then on to zizland! Breathing is such a natural process I usually don’t put much thought into. Because it is so automatic, I just assumed I was doing it right. But there are two different ways to breath. One is shallow chest breathing‒ high in the chest, which when you have chronic pain, is the usual way we breath. Because we fear more pain, we take small, shallow breaths. This only makes things worse, however, as chest breathing increases muscle tension—thus increasing the pain. Another alternative is diaphragmatic breathing‒deep breathing that expands the rib cage.

3. Avoid blue light
This one can be a challenge. I, for one, have an ingrained habit of checking emails, Facebook and the news before bed. All of which probably don’t help my relaxation, as TV and portable electronic devices emit blue light which has a greater effect on shifting the circadian rhythm and suppresses melatonin. You are probably noticing a theme in this list—Anything we do to mess with our circadian rhythm is going to mess with our sleep. All artificial light affects our sleep patterns.

4. Cutting Some Meds
I talked to my doctor and he let me know my medications might be helping me with the initial falling asleep, but they could be causing middle of the night awakening. I decided to taper off my sleeping medication. It was initially very difficult, but it was worth it in the end.

5. Naps
I was taking naps during the day. Napping can be great—if done right. I am one of those lucky people who can lay down mid-afternoon and snooze for 10-15 minutes and feel alert until bedtime. My mom, on the other hand, lays down for a nap and wakes up 2 hours later, and then finds it difficult to fall asleep later that evening. If you can keep naps short (10-30 minutes) they can be helpful in managing chronic pain.

6. Sleep Schedule
Having a regular sleep schedule is super helpful in establishing a healthy sleep pattern. But if you are anything like me, this is very difficult when you have chronic pain. This is what my schedule used to look like: I would take a bunch of pills, some for sleep and some for pain, then I would go to bed at a regular time. I would sleep until about 2:00 AM. I would wake up for no reason, but could not go back to sleep, so I would go to the family room and watch all that fun middle of the night TV. You know—infomercials and such. I would be awake for 2-3 hours, then try to go back to sleep. I would then wake up at 10 or 11 in the morning, feeling tired and depressed.

I had to make some drastic changes to turn this around. Several things helped me with this. Please remember this is my story. Each person is different in their needs. My doctor recommended I start using a sleep schedule. I decided on a bedtime—the easy part, and a wake-up time—the hard part. No matter how much I slept at night, I got up the same timer each morning. As I developed a regular pattern, my body starting cooperating.


7. Exercise
This step is the one I resisted the most, but it is probably the most important one. My doctor recommended I exercise each day.

“What does that have to do with sleep?” I protested!

I soon discovered that if I worked up a sweat during the day, I would be able to sleep through central nerve pain at night. Almost like magic! I still use this important tip 10 years later. I have a very difficult time sleeping through my pain if I haven’t exercised during the day. Our bodies are made to move.


8. Sleep Space
My doctor also asked me if the room I slept in was cool and dark and relaxing. He suggested I make it a calming space—used only for sleep and sex. No piles of bills by the bed, no computer with flashing lights, no piles of laundry. He explained the body temperature needs to drop to initiate sleep hormones. Our brain records any lights during our sleep, thus disrupting deep sleep, so keeping the room cool and dark is important.

Bottom line—I sleep through central nerve pain most nights. I know I am better able to deal with my pain during the day if I have had a good night’s sleep the night before. I have also noticed getting good sleep has helped with my mood, concentration and alertness.

About the Author: Becky Curtis

After a horrific car accident nearly took her life and her own long and complex recovery journey, Becky has assembled a vibrant team of specially-trained coaches—healthcare professionals who have gained proficiency in teaching and coaching, many who live successfully with chronic pain. Becky travels extensively to speak about the role of health coaching in pain management and has been a regular speaker at PAINWeek®, and many other conferences, in addition to coaching and managing TCC’s program. She lives in Utah with her husband and dog, Quigley.

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