Sleep and Pain: The Ultimate Catch 22

The relationship between sleep and pain is a catch 22. If you sleep better, you will experience less pain. If you are in less pain, you will sleep better. But, more often than not, you aren’t sleeping well because you’re in pain and your pain gets worse because you’re not sleeping well. It is a vicious downward cycle, and, unfortunately, the list of effective solutions is short.

First, why are pain and sleep linked? Pain is a sleep disruptor and will shorten healthy stages of sleep. Also, studies have shown that deeper (non-REM Stage 3) sleep can improve pain tolerance. What isn’t talked about in the relationship between pain and sleep is a third factor: Breathing.

The body is made to recover while sleeping, so you should feel amazing every morning. If you don’t, what is keeping you from feeling great after “resting”? Do you have chronic head and neck pain? Headaches? This seems obvious, but you will feel amazing after sleep only if your brain can actually do what it needs to do and your muscles have rested.

Any muscle that does not get the proper rest will become sore or cause pain. Poor breathing while sleeping will increase muscle activity. This happens because your brain will sense a problem (not enough oxygen) and protect itself by flexing muscles to bring you out of deeper sleep. The more awake you are, the more open your airway will be. Your brain solved the lack of oxygen problem, but, in doing so, created another problem.

So, the best solution is to breathe better at night, which allows you to sleep better and experience less pain. Better breathing enables the brain to rest and not excite head and neck muscles. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first treatment option for most patients. Pain medication is where too many people start as a solution to their sleep and pain problems. Any medication is not conservative, so let’s not begin there. Pain medication has too many side effects and can often not be effective enough in managing chronic pain.¹

Chronic pain is very common in the US with about 100 million people suffering from it. This does not have to be! We could have patients take less medication and be able to function better than before if we treat the root of the problem. Improving breathing and sleep should be our first step to getting there!