“An individual simply cannot get comfortable to fall asleep due to the discomfort of pain,” says Frank. J. Falco, MD, who specializes in pain management and sleep problems in Newark, Del. Plus, pain causes anxiety, which disrupts sleep even more.
In addition to preventing a person from falling asleep, pain also results in difficulty staying asleep. And once pain keeps you awake one night, it is likely to do the same thing again and again. Pain-related insomnia gets worse over time.
“But no matter what the cause, it is the intensity and quality of the pain, not necessarily the type, that determines the impact on a person’s quality of life, including sleep,” says Falco, who heads Mid-Atlantic Spine and Pain.
The Relationship Between Pain and Sleep
“Pain is a sensation you feel when nerves are stimulated to an intense degree,” says Tracey Marks, MD, an Atlanta-based psychiatrist. Marks is author of Master Your Sleep: Proven Methods Simplified. “This stimulation activates the brain, which keeps you awake.”
Some of the ways pain causes insomnia include the following:
Pain at night disrupts sleep architecture.
“You need a certain amount of each stage of sleep to feel rested and for proper memory,” Marks says. These stages include light sleep, deep sleep, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. “We normally go through four to six cycles of these stages per night. But if pain wakes you up, you spend too much time in light sleep,” she explains. This reduced sleep -- in particular, shortened REM -- may increase sensitivity to pain.
Pain affects sleep position.
Certain types of pain, such as arthritis pain and orthopedic pain, may prevent you from getting comfortable at night, says Reena Mehra, MD, of University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland. The medical director of adult sleep services says joint and muscle pain usually results in problems staying asleep (called sleep maintenance insomnia) rather than falling asleep (called sleep onset insomnia).