When Aches and Pains Disrupt Sleep

Sleep tips for women.

From the WebMD Archives


Treatment for Pain and Sleep Problems

To someone who doesn't have chronic pain and sleep problems, the solution might seem easy: Take a pain medicine. Sometimes, that works. But it's not always so simple. For example, a short-acting painkiller might be fine when you're awake. But at night, it could wear off long before morning.

Also, some of the most powerful chronic pain treatments we have, opioid medicines, can actually contribute to sleep apnea and thus disrupt your sleep. Other pain medications, like acetaminophen and NSAIDs such as ibuprofen and naproxen, might be less likely to cause problems.

If possible, it's important to treat the cause of the underlying pain, says Anne Louise Oaklander, MD, PhD, an associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Nerve Injury Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

"Treating the cause is crucial," says Oaklander. "If you had a terrible toothache and your dentist just gave you a nerve block to numb the pain, you might be happy temporarily. But the next day, you'd be back where you started."

Experts say it’s also important to treat your sleep problem, which may indirectly help treat your pain.

In some cases, taking a sleeping pill will actually help you gain control of your symptoms better than a pain medication, says Kramer. If you can get just some sleep, the pain won't be quite as bad the next day.

Research bears this out, Roth says. "Some studies have shown that if you help people sleep better after surgery, they'll use lower levels of painkillers," he tells WebMD. Getting enough sleep can be crucial to help you managing your pain.

The bottom line? There are three key ways to deal with pain-related sleep problems:

  • Treat your pain with pain medicine.
  • Treat the underlying condition, such as arthritis or a toothache, that causes your pain.
  • Treat your sleep problem with a sleep aid.

See your doctor to devise the best treatment strategy for your situation.

Pain and Sleep: What You Can Do

While you and your doctor work on a treatment plan, here are some things you can do on your own to reduce pain and improve your sleep.

  • Exercise. Regular physical activity has all sorts of health benefits. But specifically, many studies have found that it may help you manage painful symptoms, boost energy, and improve your sleep. Just make sure not to exercise too close to bed, when it's more likely to rev you up.

  • Practice good sleep hygiene. While it won't directly help with your pain, doing everything you can to improve your sleep is a good idea. Make sure that your bedroom is a soothing, calming place. Take time to unwind before bed, maybe turning off the computer and television about an hour before. Reduce your caffeine intake during the day.

  • Be careful with alcohol and other drugs. Many people with chronic pain rely on alcohol to help ease their discomfort and fall asleep. But self-medicating with alcohol or other drugs is a bad idea in the long run. Even in the short-term, drinking alcohol before bed isn't wise. While it might help you nod off, it will disrupt your sleep cycle and wake you up a few hours later.

    What about cigarettes? While some people smoke to relax and deal with stress, nicotine is actually a stimulant. "Smoking anytime can be a problem," says Kramer. "Nicotine can affect sleep patterns for up to 24 hours after you smoke."