Sleeping through central nerve pain is challenging. I remember taking a large handful of pills to get to sleep each night. I would initially sleep, but then wake at 2 or 3 a.m., unable to go back to sleep. I would then watch middle-of-the-night TV for a few hours before trying to sleep again. I rarely felt rested or healthy.
My providers kept telling me exercise was a key component to managing my pain and sleeping through the night, but from my perspective, exercising made my pain worse and how would it help my sleep?
After my spinal injury I had worked super hard to get into the best shape possible. I went from not being able to function, to out of the wheelchair, and on to walking—albeit with a limp. With the help of physical and occupational therapists, I gained ground and strength. But after developing the burning nerve pain caused by a fluid filled cyst in the center of my spinal cord, I no longer wanted to move. I thought moving made my pain worse. I spent many hours in bed and lying in the recliner. I now know this caused my muscles to weaken and made my pain worse. Highly medicated, I didn’t feel like moving. I felt sleepy, foggy and unmotivated.
I made a decision to turn things around. I was told by my physical therapist I might experience more pain for the first 6 months of returning to an active lifestyle. This helped set my expectations. I started slow and steady. I had my PT put together safe exercises and added cardio to the mix. I was able to do 90 seconds on the elliptical when I started. Yes—you read that right—90 seconds.
I didn’t notice immediate results—except I did hurt more. My muscles were sore, and it did increase my nerve pain. But I was willing to accept this as I pushed on toward the goal of better strength, a clearer mind and better sleep. With consistent exercise, I noticed I was sleeping better. I decided to talk to my doctor about weaning off the sleeping pills and continued to increase my strength training and cardio. Feeling stronger and sleeping better, I was able to eliminate the sleeping pills.