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Chronic Pain and Sleep Disturbance


Updated January 28, 2008

Chronic Pain Can and Does Create Sleep Problems.:

The National Sleep Foundation reports that 2/3 of chronic pain sufferers experience sleep problems. Approximately 15% of all people have sleep problems. Compounding the problem of disturbed sleep in people who hurt is the fact that some chronic pain medications tend to disrupt sleeping patterns.

Bedtime and Chronic Pain:

Bedtime is a time to allow the distractions of the day to drop away. It is a time for relaxation. For the person living with chronic pain, it is unavoidable time alone with your pain. The pain is amplified because it is the only activity perceivable by the brain. This makes falling asleep fraught with pain perceptions.

The Vicious Cycle:

When a chronic pain sufferer experiences fragmented sleep, a vicious cycle ensues – sleep disruption caused by chronic pain exacerbates the pain, which in turn interrupts sleeps. With repetition, this becomes a pattern. Also, microarousals, which have little to no impact on people without pain, increase the likelihood of disrupted sleep patterns for those with chronic pain.

Causes of Sleep Loss:

The National Sleep Foundation reports several major causes of interrupted sleep:

Forms of Interrupted Sleep:

The main forms of sleep interruption include:
  • waking up throughout the night
  • difficulty falling asleep
  • awakening too early in the morning
  • non-refreshing sleep.
Additionally,people with conditions such as fibromyalgia and arthritis may experience restless leg syndrome, morning stiffness, extra pain and/or sleep apnea.

Effects of Sleeplessness:

Non-restorative sleep takes its toll the next day in the form of low energy/fatigue, depression, and increased pain. Reduced energy and function can jeopardize safety, as well.

The Problem with Sleep Medications:

The New York Times reports that about 42 million prescriptions for sleep medication were issued in 2005. Aside from being over prescribed, sleep medications these days can have strange side effects such as sleep-driving!

Are Drugs the Answer to Sleep Disruption?:

The New York Times article also indicates that drugmakers target and capitalize on the public perception that “modern day lifestyle” is frenetic. The article reveals the steepness of advertising strategies for sleep medication which use ad bombardment, advertising to prescribing physicians and campaigns timed with the unveiling of last year’s Desperate Housewives TV season. Is there another way for us to get to sleep? Must we rely on these drugs?

What to Do:

Most authorities recommend practicing good sleep hygiene, along with becoming very familiar with their sleep deprivation problem (i.e. understanding the cause). If sleep problems persist after implementing sleep hygiene practices, it may then be the time to seek medical help.


1 What You Can Do to Get a Good Sleep. National Sleep Foundation. Retrieved from: http://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleeplibrary/index.php?id=63 February 7, 2006.

2. Breaking the Cycle of Chronic Pain and Insomnia. Spine-Health. Retrieved from: http://www.spine-health.com/topics/conserve/insomnia/insomnia1.html February 9, 2006.

3. Saul, Stephanie. Record Sales of Sleep Pills Cause Worry. New York Times. Tuesday, February 7, 2006.
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