A Guide to Better Sleep: How to rest well when you’re in pain

Sleep is an integral, yet often overlooked, part of health and wellbeing. Especially when you’re dealing with physical pain, it can be difficult and sometimes even impossible to meet the recommended seven hours a night.

Although it’s a personal struggle, it is not an uncommon problem. There are things that you can do to help yourself sleep better. Here, we’ve gathered some insights and tips on how to improve your sleep.

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Halle Jarvi Medical Writer
Medically reviewed by 

Many of us struggle with sleep — it’s a vicious cycle. You might lay down with the best intentions, and then, as the minutes pass by it becomes more and more stressful, thinking to yourself “Why aren’t I asleep yet?” which only ever keeps you up longer. Add to that the feelings of uncomfort or physical exhaustion and pain, and it doesn’t take long to start feeling burnt out in your everyday life.

Sleep is important for our general well being, both mentally and physically. When you’re recovering from an injury or living with chronic pain, sleep is even more important precisely because recovery calls for a strengthened mind-body relationship. Good sleep can help with this, but that also means poor sleep can hurt.

Sleep and Pain

Chronic pain leads to a more active nervous system, meaning that your body is in a state of heightened sensation and it can take longer to fall asleep comfortably. We fall asleep when our nervous system calms down. This is our natural cycle of sleeping and waking: the circadian rhythm. However, this rhythm is disrupted when you’re in pain, meaning that a body in pain has more work to do to relax.

The relationship between sleep and pain can quickly become its own, unhealthy rhythm in which you’re in pain, so it’s hard to sleep; then you’re tired, so you feel more pain. It’s not hopeless, though. Although you might feel out of control of your sleep quality in terms of your pain, there are some things you can take control of for better sleep and feel less pain during the day.

Your Starting Point

Even though pain has a clear connection to sleep quality, there are many other factors that play a part in sleep quality which you have more control over. Before trying new routines around sleep, it’s important to consider the routine you currently have — or don’t have — and what might be affecting your sleep adversely.

Ask yourself these questions to reflect on the ways you approach sleep today:

  • How do I feel when I get ready to go to sleep?
  • How do I feel when I wake up?
  • What defines my evening routine? My morning one?
  • What helps relieve my pain?
  • What aggravates my pain?

Reflecting like this will help set the stage for achieving longer and more restful sleep without the help of over-the-counter sleep aids. Going forward, you might consider keeping a sleep journal to hold yourself accountable and keep track of what works best for you.

Make Sleep a Priority

Sleep is not something to take for granted, yet it is easily overlooked. When you get a good night of sleep, you hardly consider it. However, regularly lacking sleep can interfere with your mood, activities, relationships and your overall outlook on life. Making sleep a priority and simply dedicating some time and energy to it can vastly improve your experience.

Active lifestyle
There are links between leading an active lifestyle and achieving better sleep. With about 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a day, like walking or jogging, you can start to feel improvement in your sleep almost immediately.

Before Sleep

Relax and clear your mind by practicing good sleep hygiene — some mental and physical things you can do to help your body relax and fall asleep faster when you’re dealing with pain.

Take a Walk

A few hours before bedtime, perhaps after dinner, it’s a good idea to take a short, gentle walk to clear your mind, stretch your legs and expend a bit of energy. This doesn’t mean you should vigorously exercise — instead, save that for the mornings or afternoons and save the walking for winding down in the evening.

Eat Dinner Earlier

Eating a meal within 1-2 hours of going to sleep can negatively affect the production of sleep hormones like HGH and melatonin which your body naturally produces to lull you to sleep. Try a slightly higher carb meal about three or four hours before bed to keep you feeling full and trigger serotonin production.

Sleep hormones
We get tired and fall asleep thanks to the combination of our natural circadian rhythm and the production of sleep hormones. In fact, the hormones our body produces at night do all kinds of things.

Watch What You’re Drinking

Consider limiting the amount of caffeine and alcohol you consume on a daily basis — but especially in the evenings. This is because caffeine stimulates your nerve system, while alcohol hinders your body’s natural production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Try some decaffeinated teas or mocktails instead.

Think About the Light

Our exposure to light plays the main role in our circadian rhythm — the natural, cyclical process that regulates our sleep-wake cycle. Increase your exposure to natural light during the daytime and decrease your exposure to artificial light sources (like TV’s, computers and phones) in the evening after sundown.

Don’t Worry

Sometimes it can be worrying to lay awake when you want to be sleeping. That said, it’s important not to worry yourself in these moments because stressing the mind makes it increasingly difficult to fall asleep. Instead, if you’re unable to sleep within 20 minutes of laying down, you should leave the bedroom and do a relaxing activity like reading until you feel sleepy again.

During Sleep

Of course, getting better sleep also has its more practical considerations beyond mindset. If you have recurring or chronic pain it is worth the time to consider your particular sleep setting and materials.

Optimize Your Sleeping Area

To begin with, you should strengthen your body’s innate association between ‘bed’ and ‘sleep’ by reserving your bed for sleeping and avoiding it as a resting place throughout the day. Also, the ideal environment is cool, dark, and quiet – do what you can and consider a fan, some blinds and earplugs to optimize your space.

Make Sure you Have the Right Setup

In addition to a relaxing atmosphere, the quality and condition of your mattress and pillows also play a role. This is especially important when you’re in pain as you might require some particular bedding setup. It’s extremely subjective and there’s no one-pillow-fits-all approach, so try soft and firm to find what’s best for your sleeping style.

After Waking

Although it’s tempting to hit snooze until the last possible moment, aim to wake with enough time to establish a morning routine with some consideration to both body and mind.

Keep a Schedule

Resist the temptation to sleep in and instead put emphasis on keeping a regular routine about both when you go to sleep but also when you wake up. Even though it might be hard work in the beginning, sticking to a routine will support your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.

Practice Morning Mindfulness

Starting the day with mindfulness practices like meditation or yoga helps stave off grogginess. Especially when days sometimes involve unpredictable levels of pain and stress, beginning with a moment of quiet reflection serves as a calming foundation for the day,

Try Daily Stretching and Breathing Routines

Doing stretching and breathing circuits first thing in the morning helps you wake up by relaxing your muscles and warming up your joints. They can help keep pain at bay throughout the day, too. Try some whole-body stretches or breathing techniques as a natural pain reliever.

Sleep Well, Live Well

For all the problems that the lack of sleep can bring, the benefits of making some changes are well worth it and will lead to better sleep. Being well rested means improved physical and mental health — from feeling more energized throughout the day and happier, to being more focused and productive. Combined with a healthy diet and exercise, sleeping well also leads to lower pain levels.

As with anything, some nights will be harder and some days will be easier. However, making sleep a priority and sticking to some changes in your routine will improve your sleep quality and make big differences in your waking life, as well.

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About the author

Halle Jarvi is an American health writer and editor based in Copenhagen. She is always practicing her own version of an active lifestyle and is passionate about empowering others to do the same. Her background encompasses health and lifestyle writing, editorial work as well as communication strategy and branding