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How to Improve Sleep Despite Chronic Pain

It can be hard to get a full seven to nine hours of sleep when you’re struggling with chronic pain. An aching back or shoulder can be enough to keep you tossing and turning all night long. Sleep and pain have a unique relationship in that both can cause and contribute to the other. However, there are many ways to improve your ability to sleep despite chronic pain.

The Relationship Between Sleep and Pain

Pain perception is amongst one of the many bodily functions affected by sleep deprivation. A study published in Sleep found that cutting sleep time in half from eight hours to four hours caused a 25 percent increase in pain perception. Essentially, your pain threshold goes down and any pain you’re already feeling gets magnified when you don’t get enough rest.


Lack of sleep also impacts your ability to treat pain. Research that has explored sleep and pain perception has found that the effectiveness of painkillers like codeine goes down as the number of hours asleep decreases. Whether your medications are over-the-counter or prescribed, their ability to block your pain will decrease if you don’t get the rest you need.


However, you don’t have to be stuck in a cycle of pain and sleep deprivation. A two-fold plan to reduce pain while developing healthy sleep habits can bring pain relief (and better sleep).

Reduce Pain Before Bed

How you treat your pain at home will depend on the source, location, and any instructions from your physician. But here’s a few ideas to reduce chronic pain for a better night’s rest:


  • Topical Analgesics: Topical analgesics include creams, lotions, and ointments that are applied and rubbed into the skin over the affected area. Some act as a counter-irritant, stimulating the nerve endings and distracting the brain from pain. Others function as a painkiller that disrupts the nerve signals to the brain so you sense less pain.

  • Hot/Cold Therapy: Heat stimulates and increases blood flow to the affected area while cold restricts it.  Basically, heat relaxes muscles while cold reduces swelling. The nature of your injury or pain will determine which you need but both can help close to bedtime.

  • Meditation and Relaxation: Meditation has a powerful effect on the mind, which in turn, affects pain perception. A study done at the University of Manchester found that regular meditation decreased the anticipation of pain and therefore the perception of it. It’s also a great way to calm your mind and body before bed.

Develop Healthy Sleep Habits

Good sleep habits start in a comfortable sleep environment. A bedroom that’s kept cool (between 60 to 68 degrees), dark, and quiet offers a sleep environment that supports distraction-free sleep. If an ongoing injury is the source of your pain, you may want to consider an adjustable bed so you can easily elevate the injured area.


A few more healthy sleep habits include:


  • Following a Nightly Bedtime Routine: Bedtime routines allow your body to adjust to your preferred sleep schedule. They’re also a great time to do pain management like stretching, applying ointments, or using a heating pad. Start your routine at the same time and perform all activities in the same order each night.

  • A Consistent Bedtime: Your routine will be that much more effective when you also keep a consistent bedtime. The brain will adjust the release of sleep hormones to follow your preferred sleep schedule.

  • More Time Outside: Natural light helps control the timing of your sleep-wake cycle. More time outside can increase the release of sleep hormones once the sun goes down.


Better sleep and less pain go hand in hand. Though it may take some time to get both, a consistent effort can help you get the rest you need and bring your pain under control.



Tuck is a community devoted to improving sleep hygiene, health and wellness through the creation and dissemination of comprehensive, unbiased, free web-based resources. Tuck has been featured on NBC News, NPR, Lifehacker, and Radiolab and is referenced by many colleges/universities and sleep organizations across the web.

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