Having difficulty sleeping is something that impacts everyone from time to time. But for people who live with chronic pain and insomnia, this can be an ongoing and frustrating challenge.
If you’re stuck in the vicious cycle between not being able to sleep because of pain and being in more pain because you can’t sleep, read on for more information on how to rest a little easier.
Are Chronic Pain and Insomnia Connected?
Before diving into the connection between chronic pain and insomnia, let’s define these two separate conditions individually. To start, chronic pain is pain that typically lasts for more than 3 to 6 months in one or more areas of the body with little to no relief. There are many different causes behind chronic pain, and everybody’s experiences with the symptoms of chronic pain can differ. The side effects of chronic pain are vast and can greatly impact someone’s:
- Ability to work
- Mental health
- Overall quality of life
Chronic pain can also impact somebody’s ability to sleep, as we’ll learn a little later. The inability to sleep or to sleep well might be a result of the condition called insomnia. Insomnia is part of a category of sleeping disorders. These are neurological disorders that cause sleeping problems. Some classic symptoms of insomnia include an inability to:
- Fall asleep quickly
- Stay asleep or fall back asleep
- Sleep for long stretches of time
- Get restorative sleep
When the mind and body aren’t able to recharge with good quality sleep, there can be a domino effect of discomfort. Body pain, headaches, and other serious medical conditions are all side effects of insomnia.
So, we know that chronic pain and insomnia can drastically influence the way that somebody feels physically, mentally, and emotionally. But what happens when these two things combine? Unfortunately, chronic pain and insomnia frequently play into one another with one condition worsening the other in a vicious cycle.
Chronic pain can cause such discomfort that it makes it extremely challenging to fall asleep, stay asleep, or get restful, restorative sleep. On the flip side, insomnia can leave the body and mind feeling exhausted, resulting in more aches and discomfort, even for people who do not live with chronic pain. This means that for the people who do have chronic pain and insomnia, the pain is likely to be greater when they are unable to sleep well. And when the pain is bad, the ability to sleep only gets more difficult.
One study documents that people who have insomnia are 3 times more likely to have symptoms of pain as well. Similarly, the same study shows that about 20 percent of people who live with chronic pain also have symptoms of insomnia. As this report shows, the link between chronic pain and insomnia is undeniable.
With the two so closely related, it’s no wonder that there’s such a high chance that people with chronic pain will experience symptoms of insomnia (and the reverse is true as well). When this happens, the side effects can be detrimental.
What Are the Side Effects of “Pain-Insomnia”?
In the chronic pain community, there is such a strong correlation between pain and insomnia that some people call it “pain-insomnia” or, to shorten it even further, “painsomnia.” Usually, this refers to the inability to sleep well as a result of chronic pain, which is then exacerbated by a lack of restorative sleep. But it’s a bit of a “chicken and egg” scenario in terms of what came first: did the pain cause the lack of sleep, or did the lack of quality sleep cause the pain?
Some common side effects of painsomnia include:
- Inability to think clearly
- Sensitivity to pain
- Muscle weakness
Chronic pain and insomnia can not only be physically exhausting, but they can have an impact on somebody’s mental health as well. This means that insomnia is also closely linked to certain mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression. Insomnia can even lead to hallucinations and paranoia. After all, sleep is essential to any human’s ability to function. Without enough sleep, the consequences can be dire.
Pain-insomnia can be incredibly frustrating to deal with in general. A lot of people who live with chronic pain already feel isolated—adding sleeping problems on top of these already-present feelings can make it much harder to cope. However, having the right type of treatment for chronic pain and insomnia can help to break the vicious cycle.
What Treatments Are There for Chronic Pain and Insomnia?
The treatment goal when looking at chronic pain and insomnia is to treat both conditions in order to reduce pain and improve sleep simultaneously. This means finding effective pain management techniques on top of increasing the quality of sleep you receive.
To begin, there are various approaches to treating insomnia in general. These include:
- Creating healthy sleep habits
- Reducing screen time before bed
- Meditation or mindfulness
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- White noise
- Comfortable sleep environment
When looking at specific treatments that work to address chronic pain’s interference with sleep, there are further approaches that could be beneficial. One of these would be cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a therapeutic technique that is usually done with a mental health professional. Patients work to challenge thoughts and behaviors that are not beneficial to their overall health.
For example, it’s natural to fall into a spiral of negative thoughts when chronic pain and insomnia keep you awake. This could be thought patterns such as, “I’ll never fall asleep,” or “This pain is going to keep me up all night.” CBT would ask a patient to recognize these patterns and try to change them to something like, “I’m feeling pain right now, but it is temporary,” or “I can make it through tonight.”
This therapy can help to change a person’s perception of pain and make it seem more manageable. Though it might not reduce the physical sensations of aches and pains, it can act as a resource on how to cope with these symptoms when they flare up. In turn, it might be a little easier to rest.
Still Struggling to Sleep?
Of course, breaking the vicious cycle of no sleep is easier said than done for many patients with chronic pain and insomnia. When you find yourself struggling through those sleepless nights, know that you’re not alone. You can reach out to others who understand through the Pain Resource Community. And be sure to share your own tips and tricks on how you make it through these long nights.
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