It doesn’t matter whether it’s pain from a sprained ankle, sharp pain in your neck, or persistent low back pain. Getting a good, quality night’s sleep is critical to managing your symptoms. There are many factors that will influence this, including pain being present in the first place. Other factors that might affect your sleep include stress, weight, poor sleep hygiene and nutritional factors.
But why is sleep so important in pain?
Pain is your brain’s most proficient defence mechanism. You only experience pain when your subconscious brain feels that there is sufficient threat or danger that pain is required to protect you. Sometimes the level of pain experienced may exceed what one might expect. For example a paper cut will often hurt a lot. Now this may be due to a high number of nerve endings in the hand, but also your hands are very important to your brain. They are a key sensory organ that feeds, clothes and provides tactile feedback. The loss of the hand would be a very big deal, so your brain will work hard to protect it!
When you are experiencing pain, your “fight or flight” system (or sympathetic nervous system) is in over drive. Think of if you were confronted by a serious life-threatening situation, like being locked in a room with a lion. A number of things would happen to your body: your heart rate would increase, muscle activity would increase, you would likely start to sweat, as well as a host of other responses. This is your body preparing to fight or flee. A similar action happens in pain, and if your pain is persistent throughout the day, then it is working all the time.
We have a counter for this and that is the action of the parasympathetic nervous system. This is most active when happy or relaxed and also, when you are asleep. Getting a good night sleep activates your parasympathetic nervous system and helps shut down your “fight or flight” response. Therefore if we are losing quality sleep, we are losing that highly effective ‘dampening’ of the pain response/ ‘fight or flight’ system.
It is important to recognise this because while we may not always be able to control the pain aspect during the night, we need to identify and control any other aspects that may contribute to poor sleep. This may be as simple as advice on sleep position, or better sleep hygiene techniques, see more tips here.
If you think you may have sleep apnoea it may be worth having a sleep study, or if you are stressed and your mind is racing before bed, then advice regarding relaxation techniques or mindfulness techniques may be useful.
It is very common for me to see those in pain start to turn around by exerting some more control over sleep. If you are suffering pain and sleep is also an issue, consider seeking further advice from a suitably qualified professional.