Better Sleep With Osteoarthritis

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on February 12, 2024
3 min read

Does your osteoarthritis (OA) keep you up at night? Painful joints can make it hard to sleep, but when you’re tired, your pain can get worse, too.

But you don’t have to put up with endless restless nights. Check out these simple tips to sleep better when you have OA. You can also make some changes to the way you sleep so you don't make arthritis pain worse.

Keep your spine in line. OA often affects back and neck joints. The wrong sleep position can make those areas feel worse.

Sleep with your head, neck, and spine in a straight line. Don’t keep your head tilted far to one side, or too far forward or backward on the pillow. Sleep on your back or side, not your tummy. You have to twist your neck to breathe if you lie on your stomach.

Pick the right pillow. It should place your head in line with your spine. Flat pillows may let your head dip down too far if you sleep on your side. High, overstuffed ones may cause your neck to bend upward when you’re on your back.

Try a feather pillow that you can mold to fit your head and neck. If you like to sleep on your side, make sure your pillow is just thick enough to fill the space between your ear and the mattress, but not one that tilts your head up.

If you’re sleeping on a plane or in the car, try a collar-shaped pillow. It can support your head so it doesn’t flop to one side.

Get pain under control. If aching joints keep you awake, you may sleep better if you can get some pain relief. Regular exercise, weight loss, and physical therapy can make a difference. But you might also need medications.

Common choices include ibuprofen, naproxen, and acetaminophen, which you can buy over the counter. Take the medicine about an hour before bedtime so it can kick in before you try to fall asleep. But before you start taking these drugs regularly, ask your doctor how long it’s OK to take them.

If your pain is mainly in one joint, like your knee, your doctor may be able to ease it with a steroid shot in the area.

What about taking pills to make you fall asleep? It’s better to treat your OA pain than to take sleep drugs on a regular basis. Talk to your doctor about your options.

Stay active to rest better at night. Regular exercise can help lubricate your joints. It also eases pain and stiffness, gives you more energy during the day, and makes for better sleep at night.  

Try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week, like a brisk walk or a water aerobics class. Start slow, even with just 5 minutes. You can work up from there.

Yoga is a gentle exercise for people with OA. You can even do it seated in a chair and see results like less pain and fatigue. Research shows that regular yoga classes help people with OA sleep better.

Treat your anxiety or depression. Pain and poor sleep can add up and contribute to these mood problems. On the other hand, stress and worry about your pain can keep you from sleeping well. And when you’re tired, your pain may feel worse.

Talk to your doctor about treatments for anxiety or depression. There are many options, including psychotherapy, medications, exercise, and acupuncture.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you treat sleep problems, which may ease your joint pain and anxiety, too.

Build smart sleep habits. Simple changes to your nighttime routine and bedroom setup can help you sleep better:

  • Set a regular bedtime. It gets your body into a rhythm so it knows it’s time to fall asleep.
  • Make your bedroom as dark and cool as you can.
  • Skip caffeinated coffee or sodas, chocolates, and alcohol at night. These can keep you awake or wake you up in the middle of the night.
  • Turn off your computer, smartphone, or tablet about an hour before bed.
  • Don’t eat a large meal too close to bedtime. If you do feel hungry, choose a light snack. Spicy, fatty, and fried snacks can upset your stomach, so avoid those. Instead, eat a few crackers with a small spoon of peanut butter or a small piece of cheese.