How To Sleep With Pain (22 Special Tips)

Members Question -
"I Know Sleep Is Important, But I Just Can't Seem To Do More Than Catnap - Can You Please Help?"

Our Member Survey Says….

  • 88% Of Our Members Who Suffer With A Range Of Different Pains, Reported Suffering Some Problems Sleeping As A Result Of Their Pain (1,108 responded)
  • The Most Common Cause Of Pain To Wake You Up Was Lower Back Pain (71%) With Stomach Pain In Second (53%) And Head/Neck Pain In 3rd (49%)

(Survey completed 10th July 2019, to be redone July 2020)

The question of how to sleep with pain is one any pain specialist is likely to be asked many times – because managing to sleep when you suffer with pain is never as simple as it should be. Today, we look at 22 methods for sleeping with pain.

Sleep is undeniably tied to your pain levels. If you don’t achieve the deep (stage 3 or REM) restorative sleep because of your pain, then you are likely to wake up still feeling tired and irritable.

Not only that, but the fatigue you feel will actually make you more sensitive to normal pain stimuli (you’ll feel your pain more acutely) and is likely to dramatically increase many of the side effects of suffering with pain such as mood swings and depression.

The importance of getting good sleep is something that comes up time and time again when anyone offers advice on pain management or relief. What is often lacking however, is practical advice on how to achieve that deeper, restorative sleep.

Unfortunately, the answer of how to sleep with pain is a complicated one – so we’ve broken it down in to 10 tips to achieve better sleep if you suffer with pain…

1. Choose A Good Mattress.

This is particularly true if you suffer with lower back pain, but also applies to any form of pain. You want a firm mattress that feels comfortable, but also supports your body.

Even if back pain isn’t your main problem, lying on a mattress that does not support you properly, will put pressure on your central nervous system and the intricate route of nerves that run through your spine. This in turn is only likely to exacerbate your pain levels throughout your body.

Many people look at memory foam as the latest improvement in mattress technology – and it does have a place, but that does not make it the ideal solution.

Memory foam can mould around your body to provide support, but it is also very warm (precisely BECAUSE it moulds around your body) and is difficult to shift position in.

A normal stiff mattress with a memory foam top can be a good compromise.

You should also take into consideration that mattresses age like anything else and will lose their support typically after around 6 to 8 years.

We will be covering mattresses in much more detail soon, but if you suffer with restless legs or get hot in summer, a memory foam mattress may not be the right solution for you. One with either a mix or just a standard spring mattress may be better.

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2. Pick The Right Pillows.

Again we will cover picking a pillow in more detail in a separate article, but the main thing to look for is a firmish pillow that feels comfortable. Ideally your pillow (s) should be just enough to straighten your neck in a line with your spine.

Thinner pillows can be a great option as they allow you to ‘double up’ but also use them in other areas to support you hips or knees, depending on your preferred sleeping position.

3. Sleeping Position.

We covered the best sleeping positions if you suffer with back pain (‘What Is The Best Position For Sleeping With Back Pain’) and these are pretty much the same for all types of pain. You may want to make small adjustments such as pushing your foot outwards if you are suffering with gout (or a broken toe), but the basic principles of body alignment are the same.

4. Get In And Out Of Bed With Care.

Many people are so tired at night, that having spent all day trying to be mindful of their pain and act carefully, they then throw themselves in the bed.

The initial pain may be masked by the ‘relief’ of landing in a comfortable bed, but you wouldn’t throw yourself in the ball pit at a children’s play centre just because the landing was likely to be soft. Sit in the bed first, then lift your legs in and ease your body into the best position.

Similarly in the morning, getting out of bed by twisting your back to the side and pulling your body out will wrench your frame and inevitably lead to greater pain as the day wears on.

5. Exercise.

Getting exercise during the day has long been recognised as a great way of forcing your body into deeper sleep at night. But be careful – don’t exercise too close to bedtime or your adrenaline will still be flowing and will stop you from relaxing.

When it comes to sleeping the first 30 minutes is essential – if you don’t get to sleep early, your mind and pain is likely to keep you up for much longer.

6. Try Yoga Stretching Prior To Going To Bed.

Many home yoga guides will show you how to breath properly and explain fully the best poses for relaxation and stress reduction.

Image of a woman stretching on a yoga mat to relax better before bedtime.

7. Consider Using A Heated Blanket In The Winter.

As the cold evenings approach nothing can be nicer than snuggling under a warm duvet. But this is not only for the psychological high – keeping your body or painful areas warm is a great way of relaxing your muscles. It is no different to the warm compress that you so often see advised as a form of pain relief for anything from sprained knees to lower back pain.

8. Take A Late Bath.

Having a hot bath just before you go to bed is again likely to relax the muscles in your body, such that you get a great start to a nights’ sleep. This will of course wear off during the night, so is just a good sleep starter.

However, if you still wake up in some discomfort in the morning, many people swear by having a bath before they get up as a way of easing those pains away.

9. Switch Off The Electronic Distractions.

Try at all times not to start playing with your phone or watch TV in bed. What starts as just a quick game can easily become an hour.

Furthermore, falling asleep with the TV in a bedroom may seem ok, but it is one sure way to have disturbed, shallow sleep as your brain is still subconsciously tuned in to the sounds. You’ll wake up still feeling tired.

If at all possible, before going up to bed, it’s good to have a few minutes of slowdown time – either reading a book or listening to some relaxing music. Whatever you enjoy, but that fulfils the criteria of being quiet and relaxing.

10. Meditate.

If you can meditate, it is a great idea to do so just before you go to bed. There are plenty of guides to help you meditate from home if you’re not sure where to get started. This is even better than reading or listening to music to help you relax.

11. Essential Oils.

This is very much a subjective one, but some people really respond to burning essential oils before bedtime. It’s my personal choice, but several members have said it really helps them to relax before bed.

12. Sleeping Aids.

Depending on what is keeping you awake, there are a range of aids on the market. For example, if you find heartburn wakes you up, then a slanting cushion may be the perfect solution.

This is a cushion that starts mid-way under your back and effectively puts your body in a reclined, rather than a flat, position. This helps keep the reflux down.

Similarly if your pain is through pregnancy or even morbid obesity, then you might find help in a special pregnancy pillow. It can support your belly to make sleeping much more comfortable.

13. Focus On Good Breathing Patterns.

This could be part of a routine going to bed of just taking 30 seconds before cleaning your teeth to practise taking deep, clearing breaths. You’d be amazed at the benefit it can have if you do it properly.

14. Work to Clear Your Mind.

This works on the same principle as meditating before you go to bed. There is nothing worse for sleep than lying down in bed and tossing around an issue or anxiety in your mind before you go to sleep.

Not only will it keep your brain active (not good for sleep), but in the middle of the night any anxiety is also heightened. This will lead to tension and tension to much greater muscular pain. A good bedtime routine can help achieve this.

15. Follow A Strict Routine.

Whatever mix of sleep controls you decide on (based on what works for you), fit them in to a routine that you follow every night. This way, your body will subconsciously realise it is in the period of winding down to bed and you will remove the stress of deciding what to include or do next.

16. Plan Your Diet.

Don’t eat for at least two hours before you go to bed, so your body can rest, without having to carry on digesting your recent dinner.

17. Avoid Stimulants.

For different, but similar, reasons to point 16, avoid stimulants such as caffeine or fizzy drinks again for at the very least, two hours before you to bed. Drink a coke before bed, and your brain will be hyper stimulated and sure to keep you awake, until your pain takes over.

18. Dress properly for Bed.

If you sleep in a cold room but get warm under the covers, then make sure you wear pyjamas because if you are arm is outside the bed, you don’t want to wake up with sore elbow/ wrist joints made worse by the cold.

19. Go To The Toilet Before Bed.

This may sound an obvious one, but plenty of pain sufferers don’t go to the toilet unless they really need to. This then means they go to bed with partially full bowels and find themselves being woken up by the need to urinate just an hour or two after getting to sleep.

20. Make Sure You Have The Right Lighting.

Some people like to sleep with some light in the room. In which case choose a relaxing crystal light, rather than a glaring table lamp.

Similarly if you prefer complete darkness, consider using a blackout mask across your eyes to achieve complete dark. Some people even find the soft material on their face/ eyelids to be relaxing.

Subtle Lighting As Demonstrated By A Soft, Orange Crystal Light

21. Cut Out All Noises.

If you have a partner who either goes to bed after you or snores, considering a good pair of ear plugs to cut out all distractions from disturbing you while asleep.

22. Members Tip – Take A Sleep ‘Break’.

Gill (one of our members) very kindly wrote in to offer this tip.

“I suffer with lower back pain and found sometimes I would wake up and couldn’t get back to sleep in the night. Lying in bed became torture as I found myself more and more focused on my back.”

“In the end, I got so fed up with wasting hours trying to get to sleep that I got up an went downstairs. I had a hot milky drink, sat down with my electronic massage pad on low and after 45minutes went back to bed and slept like a baby”

An image of a hot milky drink that helps with breaking a pattern of restlessness and helps with sleeping with pain

This is a great tip – not dissimilar to what an athlete would do at the starting line of a race. They will have a set routine of activities prior to reaching the start line. If there is a false start, they go back to the beginning and start their pre-race routine all over again.

The same is true of horses in horse racing – if they fail to get in their box or there is a disturbance at the start, the jockey will pull the horse away altogether, re-circle and present the horse afresh.

By going downstairs, Gill is removing herself from the source of frustration and changing environments. The hot milky drink (while not technically being a good idea as it kicks off her digestive system) is a key part of her routine and the massaging pad just adds extra relaxation.

The other big advantage to breaking up your night if you cant sleep, is that you may have been in one position for too long or in an uncomfortable position in bed in the first place.

Either would lead to pain building up and getting out and back in could lead to you finding a more comfortable position. Moving will also help to prevent ‘tissue stagnancy’. 

Indeed, a BBC World Service report back in 2012 cast doubts on the effectiveness of 8 hours of solid sleep for exactly those reasons.

Most important of all though – it works! So if you are struggling to sleep and stuck in bed – why not try getting up, breaking the pattern and starting again an hour later? If you can’t sleep. You’ve probably got nothing to lose.

The Final Word –

Given how important sleep is to your pain levels and how frequently it can prevent you from getting a good nights’ rest, it was no surprise when it came through as one of the first questions we were asked.

Sleep may be the most natural human experience, but if you suffer with pain, it is unlikely to be the easiest. In order to achieve the deep, restorative sleep that our bodies need to heal, you need to plan your sleep meticulously.

From the initial routine up to two hours before bedtime through to how you get in and out of bed – everything is important and contributes to the length and type of sleep you will get.

Hopefully, you got some real value from the list above. If you can any other helpful tips, please either include them below or email me ([email protected])

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References Used –

1. Stephanie Hegarty (February 22nd, 2012). The Myth Of 8 Hour Sleep. BBC World Service.

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