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Pain and Sleep

By: Jennie Kermode - Updated: 3 Aug 2010 | comments*Discuss
Chronic Pain Sleep Problems Insomnia

As any chronic pain sufferer knows, a common side effect of their affliction can be sleep problems. Whether it's difficulty in getting to sleep or waking in the night, pain can lead to exhaustion which makes it still harder to function during the day. Even if your pain cannot be made to go away, learning to manage it will make it much easier for you to stabilise your sleep cycle and get the rest you need.

Defining Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is any pain that lasts for more than a few weeks. It doesn't have to be making you curl up in agony in order to deserve serious treatment. Some commonly overlooked forms of chronic pain are persistent headaches, a cramping gut, itching of the skin or muscle aches. Even if your doctor doesn't think they indicate a serious health problem, they may be willing to prescribe medication to help you manage your pain.

If your GP is unable to help you subdue your pain to the point where you can sleep (or do other essential things), you can ask to be referred to a specialist pain management clinic. Staff at these clinics are familiar with sleep problems caused by pain and will be happy to discuss them with you, so you shouldn't dismiss them as a trivial part of your overall problem.

Painkillers and Sleep

Many low-level painkillers, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, paracetamol and co-codamol, have a four hour cycle. This means you can't take a further dose until four hours have elapsed (or you could seriously damage your liver). Their pain killing effects normally begin to wear off around the end of the cycle.

Fortunately, the average sleep cycle is also about four hours long. This means that if you take your painkillers immediately before you lie down to sleep, you have a good chance of waking up feeling reasonably well rested. Because you will need more sleep, keep your next dose beside your bed. Write down the time you go to bed and the time when it will be okay for you to take the next dose, and compare this to a bedside clock so you don't make a mistake due to tiredness.

If you have difficulty getting to sleep despite your painkillers, ask your doctor if you can take a sleeping pill which also has a pain-killing effect. Alternatively your painkiller could be adjusted to better suit the type of pain you experience, as some also help to take down swelling or relieve cramps.

Because some painkillers cause drowsiness, taking them during the day can disrupt your sleep cycle and lead to insomnia at night. If you suspect this might be a problem for you, ask your doctor about alternatives.

Protecting Painful Areas During Sleep

If your pain is caused by problems in a specific area of your body, you may find that modifying your sleep environment makes sleeping much easier. A good mattress, for instance, can do a great deal to relieve chronic back pain. Most people find that a firm mattress is in fact much more comfortable than a soft one.

If your sleep is disturbed because it hurts when the bed covers touch a certain part of your body, ask to see an occupational therapist about designing something that can help you. These specialists are expert at designing pads and enclosures that help you to be comfortable even when you're moving about whilst unconscious.

Getting to Sleep

If you're in pain all the time, it can easily become the focus of your world, and it can keep demanding your attention when you're trying to get to sleep. Rather than trying to shut out all thoughts, it can help to have something different to concentrate on. Many people with chronic pain find that music can help, as they can focus on it, following its rhythms until they drop off.

For other people, meditation is a good way to block out pain-related thoughts and relax into sleep. Most people with chronic pain find that it doesn't help with all-day pain management, but it can often help for long enough to allow you to doze off.

No matter how you approach pain management, it's always worth making a proper night's sleep a priority. Not sleeping can make the body more sensitive to pain, so you may find that, as you reduce your insomnia, the pain that originally caused it actually decreases as well.

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