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Pain: The Sleep Thief

What to do when pain keeps you up at night.
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WebMD Feature

Your back is throbbing and has been for weeks. You can barely move from your bed, but you are not getting any sleep because of the intense pain.

This is a pretty common scenario, explains David Neumeyer, MD, the associate director of the Sleep Disorder Center at theLahey Clinic Medical Center in Burlington, Mass.

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“Pain and sleep are integrally connected,” he says. “Chronic pain is very common in the population and even more common in people who have poor sleep, and it sort of becomes a vicious cycle.” Pain affects your ability to sleep, and the lack of sleep makes the pain seem worse.

The Link Between Pain and Sleep Problems

Exactly how the two conditions are connected varies from person to person. “You have to determine what is the chicken and what is the egg,” he says. “Is pain a manifestation of, or made worse by, a sleep disorder or is pain causing the poor quality of sleep?”

Charles Bae, MD, a neurologist in the Sleep Disorders Center at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, puts it this way: “Pain can be the main reason that someone wakes up multiple times a night, and this results in a decrease in sleep quantity and quality, and on the flip side, sleep deprivation can lower your pain threshold and pain tolerance and make existing pain feel worse.”

“If you have arthritis and roll or turn while you are sleeping, pain can wake you up,” says David S Kloth, MD, the founder, medical director, and president of Connecticut Pain Care in Danbury, and a past president of the American Society of Intervention Pain Physicians.

The first step is to figure out if the lack of sleep is causing pain or if the pain is causing a lack of sleep, and then you treat whichever came first, he says.

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