When Aches and Pains Disrupt Sleep

Sleep tips for women.

From the WebMD Archives

For millions of women in the U.S., pain -- whether it's back pain, menstrual pain, lupus pain, or fibromyalgia -- causes a lot of sleepless nights. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 25% of women say that physical discomfort interrupts their sleep at least three nights each week.

And while pain and sleep deprivation are bad enough individually, they're even worse in combination. Pain just hurts more when you're exhausted, experts say.

"It's a vicious cycle," says Thomas Roth, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. "Pain causes disturbed sleep, and insufficient sleep lowers your threshold for pain."

The combination of pain and sleep loss not only makes you feel crummy, it also affects every other aspect of your life. It may affect your performance on the job. It may affect your abilities as a mother. It can increase your risk of injury and disease. So if you woke up this morning exhausted and in pain -- again -- what can you do? How can you break the cycle? Here's what you need to know about pain and sleep.

Women, Pain, and Sleep

While chronic pain can be a problem for everyone, there's some evidence that pain might be more likely to disrupt a woman's sleep than a man's.

What sort of pain conditions can disturb sleep? Just about any of them, experts say.

"I don't know of a pain condition that doesn't affect sleep," says Roth. Common offenders include back pain, fibromyalgia, menstrual pain, lupus, headaches, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and neuropathic pain.

Obviously, extreme pain can make it impossible to sleep. If you're in agony from a bad back or a recent injury, falling asleep and staying asleep will not be easy.

What's less appreciated is how even mild or moderate pain can disrupt your natural sleep cycle. Pain can cause what's called "microarousals." These are periods when you're not fully awake, but when your pain is just bad enough to bump you out of deeper, restorative sleep into lighter sleep.

"The pain system in the body just keeps alerting the brain throughout the night, fragmenting a person's sleep," says Ronald Kramer, MD, a spokesman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and a specialist at the Colorado Sleep Disorders Center in Englewood, Colo.

Pain can also wake you up completely, of course. But if it's for a short enough time -- under a few minutes -- you might not remember in the morning.

"I see some patients with chronic pain who think that they're sleeping fine at night," Kramer tells WebMD. "But when you look more closely, it turns out that they're not sleeping well at all."