The Relationship between Sleep and Pain

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Sleep and pain are closely related because pain can negatively affect how well you sleep. Pain is an uncomfortable feeling that can result from injury or health complications. Pain is usually described as throbbing, burning, stabbing, aching, or pinching. The severity of pain differs among individuals and is typically rated on a scale.

The uncomfortable feelings associated with pain can impact sleep by making it harder to fall asleep or stay asleep, resulting in poor sleep quality. Worse sleep quality can lead to poor mental and physical health, both short-term and long-term. The way you sleep may cause pain as well. Lying in certain positions or having a bed that doesn’t provide adequate support could trigger pain.

People whose rest is impacted by pain may need a combination of treatment and good sleeping habits. Those whose pain is triggered by how they sleep typically need to take preventative measures, such as changing their sleep position or buying a mattress that’s better suited for them.

Illustration of a Man Waking up With a Back Pain

How does Pain Affect Sleep Quality?

Pain affects sleep quality by making it harder to fall asleep or causing you to wake up more frequently. Poor sleep quality can result from insufficient rest, fragmented rest, or both at the same time. Good sleep quality is essential for your physical and mental health. When you don’t sleep well, your physical and cognitive capabilities diminish. Symptoms of poor sleep include fatigue, trouble concentrating, irritability, and less physical strength.

Experiencing pain when trying to sleep can be distracting, and some people may develop feelings of anxiety about not being able to sleep. Both factors can make it more challenging to relax, which is necessary to fall asleep. Delayed sleep onset means that the amount of time you spend asleep declines, increasing your risk of not getting enough hours of sleep.

The second way pain affects sleep quality is by causing more disturbed sleep. Pain symptoms can wake someone from slumber, and if this happens too often, the individual will likely not feel well-rested in the morning.

What are the Sleep Disturbances caused by Pain?

The main sleep disturbance caused by pain is insomnia. Insomnia is a sleep disorder in which a person has trouble falling or staying asleep. Pain can lead to insomnia by creating discomfort that delays sleep onset or prompts the individual to wake up throughout the night.

Chronic pain is considered one of the most common causes of insomnia. The Cleveland Clinic adds that disrupted sleep patterns can worsen symptoms by increasing pain sensitivity. Other sleep disturbances that may occur alongside chronic pain include sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome.

Animated Image of a Woman who Suffers from Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome and Can't Fall Asleep

Does Pain Affect your Sleeping Positions?

Yes, pain can affect your sleeping positions. Experiencing pain can alter how you sleep because the discomfort will likely force you to adjust positions to feel more comfortable.

Lying on your back or on your side is considered the best position for sleeping. Back pain could make it uncomfortable to rest in the supine position, though, and pain in the shoulder or hip could cause discomfort for side sleepers. Stomach sleepers with neck pain may need to move to the back or side sleeping for a more comfortable night’s rest.

Does Sleeping in the Wrong Position Cause Pain?

Yes, sleeping in the wrong position can cause pain because it can lead to pressure build-up or poor spine alignment. The three sleep positions are the side, back, and stomach. Experts say the worst sleep position is on the stomach because it forces you to turn your head to the side, which could lead to neck pain.

Sleeping on your back or side could cause pain, too, particularly if your mattress does not provide sufficient pressure relief or support for your body frame. For example, heavier back sleepers could develop back pain if their mattress doesn’t prevent their heavier areas from dipping. When these areas sink too much, it throws off spine alignment, which could result in back pain.

Does Chronic Pain have an Effect on Sleep?

Yes, chronic pain has an effect on sleep. These effects include poor sleep quality and reduced sleep duration. Chronic pain is when you experience pain for a prolonged period, usually lasting more than three months. People may experience chronic pain from an injury or health conditions such as cancer, fibromyalgia, or arthritis. Sometimes these conditions cause pain to flare up at night, resulting in sleep discomfort.

Chronic pain could lead to long-term sleep problems that exacerbate pain symptoms and worsen your mental and physical health. Good sleep is imperative for optimal health. When you don’t get enough quality rest, you can experience symptoms such as irritability, daytime drowsiness, trouble focusing, and less physical energy. Chronic sleep issues are also associated with long-term complications such as hypertension, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and memory loss.

A Doctor Listening to a Patient Illustration

How Should You Sleep while in Pain?

There are tips to help you sleep while in pain. These tips include relaxation techniques, pain medications, practicing good sleep hygiene, and adjusting your position. Before bed, you can practice relaxation techniques and take any pain medications necessary.

Relaxation techniques can help calm your mind and distract you from pain symptoms. Examples of relaxation techniques include meditation and deep breathing exercises. Some over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen can alleviate temporary pain, but you should consult your doctor to establish a healthy treatment plan for chronic pain.

Good sleep hygiene is also helpful for those trying to sleep with pain because these habits increase your chances of resting better. Examples of good sleep hygiene include a consistent sleep schedule, having a cool, dark, and quiet bedroom, keeping electronics out of your bedroom, avoiding large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bed, and regular exercise.

Lastly, adjusting your sleep position may be necessary to sleep while in pain. For example, if you usually sleep on your back but your pain is worse in this position, try sleeping on your side or utilizing pillows to feel more comfortable. Finding a position that feels good will give you the best chance at quality sleep.

Illustration of a Man Sleeping on His Side

What Drugs Relieve Pain and Induce Sleep?

The drugs that can relieve pain and induce sleep include over-the-counter and prescription medications. Opioids are prescription medications for severe pain that can also cause sleepiness. Over-the-counter medications can also help mitigate pain for better sleep. You can purchase these medications at your local pharmacy without a doctor’s prescription. Certain sleeping medications specifically target nighttime pain and promote sleepiness, such as AdvilPM.

What is the Effect of Sleep on Pain?

Sleep can affect pain in two ways. The first is that the way you sleep could exacerbate pain. For example, lying on your stomach could cause neck pain because your head is forced to turn to the side. A second example is that sleeping on your back without a well-supportive mattress could throw your spine out of alignment, triggering back pain.

The second way sleep affects pain is that worse sleep quality and sleep loss have been found to heighten pain symptoms. A 2018 study titled Insomnia Really Hurts: Effect of a Bad Night's Sleep on Pain Increases With Insomnia Severity found that pain symptoms in participants worsened after a night of poor rest.

Can You Feel Pain while Sleeping?

Yes, you can feel pain while sleeping, but it depends on the sleep stage you enter. There are four stages in a sleep cycle, and humans move through multiple cycles overnight. The first two stages are a lighter sleep, and therefore, you are more likely to be awakened by pain. The third stage is deep sleep, and the fourth stage is REM sleep. You are less likely to feel pain during these stages because your brain waves are at their slowest in a deep sleep, and the body is in a state of paralysis during REM sleep.

Illustration of a Woman Having Too Much on Her Mind and Can't Sleep

Do People Sleep more When They are in Pain?

No, people don’t sleep more when they are in pain because the discomfort can make it harder to fall or stay asleep, resulting in shorter sleep times. First, pain can delay sleep onset because it is distracting and can cause anxiety around sleep, making it more difficult to relax. A relaxed mind is necessary to fall asleep. Secondly, pain symptoms can cause someone to wake up more frequently during sleep, particularly in the lighter sleep stages.

Content Writer

Jill Zwarensteyn is a content writer for Sleep Advisor and is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.

Based in Los Angeles, she is an experienced writer and journalist who enjoys spending her free time at the beach, hiking, reading, or exploring new places around town.

She’s also an avid traveler who has a personal goal of being able to successfully sleep on an airplane someday.

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