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Sleep and Chronic Illness

A chronic illness is an illness that lasts for a long time. It usually cannot be cured, but it can be controlled. Examples include diabetes, arthritis, HIV/AIDS, lupus, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and multiple sclerosis.

The pain and fatigue that people with chronic illness experience have a serious impact on their daily lives, including sleep. Because of their illness, they often have trouble sleeping at night, and are consequently sleepy during the day. This is especially the case for people who have neurological (nervous system) diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Additionally, many people with chronic illnesses also suffer from depression, which can also affect their sleep. Lastly, some drugs used to treat chronic illnesses can cause sleep problems.

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Treatments for Sleep With Chronic Pain

Control Pain

The first step is to try to control the pain associated with the illness. Once pain is controlled, sleeping may not be a problem. Your doctor can prescribe the appropriate pain relieving medication that suits your condition.

Behavioral modifications

If after following adequate pain control, you are still experiencing problems with sleep, these tips may help:

  • Keep noise in the room and surrounding area down as much as possible.
  • Sleep in a dark room.
  • Keep the room temperature as comfortable as possible.
  • Eat or drink foods that induce sleep, such as warm milk.
  • Avoid naps during the day.
  • Avoid foods that contain caffeine.

There are a number of other non-medicinal approaches that are effective for sleep, including biofeedback, relaxation training, cognitive behavioral therapy, and sleep restriction techniques. These therapies are most often administered by a psychologist who specializes in sleep disorders.


If behavioral modifications and non-medical methods are not effective, there are several prescription medications to help people sleep. These drugs include sleeping pills like Ambien, Lunesta, Rozerem, and Sonata, as well as benzodiazepines, such as Restoril; antidepressants, such as Zoloft, Paxil, and Prozac; antihistamines; and antipsychotics. For patients who have chronic pain and depression, insomnia may best be treated with Trazodone or a tricyclic antidepressant, such as Pamelor or Elavil.

Talk to your doctor to find the best sleep solution for you.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on September 01, 2014
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