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Most of the general population tend to ‘sleep off’ their pain whenever they suffer from one. The thought process is that the relaxation from sleeping helps drive the pain away. But for chronic pain sufferers, that’s not usually the case.
As surprising as it may sound, chronic pain patients usually also deal with sleeping problems. It’s a classic chicken-or-egg scenario: patients can’t sleep well because they’re in pain, so their pain worsens because they haven’t slept well. It’s a vicious cycle that’s hard to break.
The basics of a good night’s sleep
Before we delve into the correlations between chronic pain and lack of sleep, we need to learn about our sleep cycle.
Our brain enters two cycles during a sleeping session: a rapid eye movement (REM) cycle and a non-REM cycle. We generally encounter both cycles several times during the night.
When we start going to sleep, we enter the four non-REM stages. Stage 1 is when we nod off, and our brain waves slow down. This cycle lasts about seven minutes. On Stage 2, our brain starts producing waves called ‘sleep spindles’ before slowing down even more. We’re now headed towards deep sleep.
Stage 3 is when our brain finally slows down, also known as deep sleep. It’s now harder to wake us up during this stage. This is also when our cells start repairing themselves and when our energy gets replenished.
After about 90 minutes of sleeping, we finally enter the REM cycle. As the name suggests, our eyes move around rapidly during this stage. Our brain also starts getting very active again, because this is when we begin consolidating all of the information and memories we acquired the previous day. REM is also when we start dreaming.
The brain and chronic pain
Chronic pain patients have increased brain activity that contributes to their increased pain. Take fibromyalgia, for example. Researchers found that fibromyalgia patients process pain signals differently compared to non-patients. In other words, patients’ brains are more active than they should be.
When it comes to sleeping, having an active brain is never good news. There’s a reason why most sleep experts recommend removing bedside distractions: it’s to help your brain settle into a low-wave sleep stage. If you’re a fibromyalgia patient, that choice is out of your hands. Even worse, constant sleep deprivation can lead to more mental problems like depression.
Patients of chronic pain problems like fibromyalgia always get their deep sleep brain waves interrupted. The brain is still processing pain signals even during sleep, and this disrupts the normal sleep cycle. As a result, patients often wake up tired and irritable even though they slept long enough.
Good news for pain patients
Though the sleep and pain cycle may seem vicious, it’s not a permanent affliction. If you are a chronic pain patient, here are some tips you can adapt to help yourself get some good sleep:
1. Take some sleeping aids – When it comes to sleeping, you need all the help you can get. To counteract your brain’s activity during the night, see if you can take some extended release sleeping aid. This will ensure that the dosage is even throughout the length of the night. Discuss with your doctor how a sleeping medication can work with your current prescription.
2. Learn some mindful meditation techniques – Mindful meditation can work both ways: it can help you fall asleep, and it can boost your mood overall. Standard meditation methods for falling asleep, such as imagining a peaceful place, help your brain settle down on its own instead of trying to force it to sleep. And if you do wake up in a not-so-good mood, meditating enables you to get out of a negative thought spiral.
3. Listen to some soothing sounds – Take your bedtime meditation even further by playing some relaxing sounds in your bedroom. This can help if you find yourself a bit too distracted to keep a peaceful image in your head. Just make sure the volume is not too loud, and that you can easily replay the track if you wake up in the middle of the night.
I was finally able to sleep! Now what?
If the steps above helped you achieve a night of restful sleep, congratulations! Keep doing that, and you’ll help your body heal bit by bit.
You’ve probably noticed an increase in your daily energy. That means you can now do a bit more than you used to, and in doing so, you probably feel better about yourself. Keeping yourself in a positive energy loop not only improves your mood, but it also helps increase your pain tolerance. It’s a win-win situation!
If you’re still experiencing some pain during the day, that’s fine. Good night sleep is not a be-all-end-all solution, but it sure does help. Instead of feeling miserable about yourself all day, you now have more energy to think about other things and focus on something else. The phrase ‘mind over matter’ really does apply in this situation.
Nobody chooses to suffer from chronic pain. But just because you’re affected with one, doesn’t mean everything about your life should suffer too. Even something as simple as sleeping shouldn’t be a hindrance to your comfort. There’s no need to shell out for something fancy like a mattress for fibromyalgia. Try to adopt a few new bedtime habits here and there, and you’ll be on your way to less pain and better sleep.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He writes for the American Psychological Association and has a weekly column for Free Malaysia Today.
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