The pain-sleep cycle
Updated: Feb 4, 2022
When you live with chronic pain, you know how exhausting it can be. The toll it takes on your body constantly feeling on edge, afraid to move the wrong way, or wishing anything would make the constant hum of pain stop. And it’s made all the worse when you, after being exhausted fighting against your pain all day, fall into bed and can’t sleep because of…you guessed it…the pain!
It’s a vicious cycle. You can’t sleep because you’re in pain, so you’re exhausted the next day and have little energy left for anything, let alone fighting against pain, which in turn makes your pain worse, and worse pain means worse sleep, and on and on and on.
I’ve seen this time and again with my chronic pain clients. Sleep medications can help, some, at least in the beginning of trying to get a handle on the sleep-pain cycle, because they may force your body to rest and help get you closer to baseline. But what we really need to do is work to help you develop consistent relaxation routines that help prepare you body for sleep and at the same time help reduce your perception of your pain, which in turn also helps you sleep.
When we focus on our pain, it gets worse, and conversely, there may be times when we’re distracted and barely notice our pain. This is because the thing that most affects the amount of pain you are feeling, especially when it comes to chronic pain, is your brain's perception of the pain, not necessarily the amount of pain signals that are being sent from the hurting area. So the amount of attention your brain is paying to your pain signals actually affects the amount of pain you feel.
So what can you do about it?
Learning to use relaxation techniques, soft lighting, music or nature sounds, deep breathing, mindfulness, and meditation can hold the key to having some control back over your pain and help you sleep, which in turn, gives you the energy you need to continue to push through the pain and break the cycle.