Pain can keep you up at night or wake you from your sleep. And a bad night's sleep may mean you feel even more pain tomorrow. Losing sleep could also make you more sensitive to pain. This vicious cycle of pain and poor sleep often spirals out of control and causes escalating health problems, especially among those with chronic pain or underlying medical illnesses associated with pain.

Many types of pain can disrupt sleep, including:

  • acute injuries
  • the aches of arthritis and fibromyalgia
  • pain associated with medical treatments
  • chronic pain disorders like temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction, headaches, and back pain
  • the cyclical pains of premenstrual cramping

Should I try pain relievers or sleep aids?
Your approach to improving your sleep will depend on the source of your pain.

In some instances, improving the quality of sleep may help to alleviate the pain. You can learn more about treatments by reading the article "Treating sleep disorders: An overview."

In other cases, it may be best to treat the pain first and, hopefully, better sleep will follow. Your choice of pain relief might include over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like acetylsalicylic acid or ibuprofen, or more powerful prescription medications. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist before choosing a pain reliever.

Certain types of medications can actually negatively affect sleep. Opioid pain medications, for example, have been linked to reduced amounts of REM sleep and the development of central sleep apnea, a condition where breathing stops repeatedly during sleep. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist to see if any of your medications could be affecting your sleep.

How can I reduce the pain I feel when I'm trying to sleep?
Small adjustments to your bed or sleeping position could make a difference in the amount of pain you feel. For instance, if your back hurts, it's better to sleep on your side with a pillow between your knees with knees bent slightly towards your chest to keep your spine in alignment. If you can't sleep on your side, lie on your back and place a pillow under your knees. You can also improve your sleep hygiene, the behaviours and environments that promote healthy sleep.

Speak to your doctor if you feel like your pain is well controlled at night, but you still have trouble sleeping.

Amy Toffelmire