When Combating Pain, Try Sleeping On It

If you ask someone what they are doing to live a more healthful life, typical answers include exercising more frequently, eating less sugar, drinking more water, reducing stress. Those are fantastic goals, ones that will certainly contribute toward a happier, healthier existence. But despite our best efforts, a third of Americans are already starting at a disadvantage right out of the gate thanks to a nasty habit many of us don’t even think twice about.

The culprit is lousy sleep.

One in three Americans are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis – “enough” meaning seven hours each night (Watson et al., 2015). Just like water to drink, food to eat, and air to breathe, sleep is an essential human need – one that received considerable attention this past Winter Olympics due to the edge it gives top level athletes who are already in superb physical condition. According to CNN, Olympic skiing champion Lindsey Vonn swears by it, aiming for 10 hours per night. The therapeutic effects of sleep include enhanced performance, decreased muscle tone, and increased relaxation and recovery. Meanwhile, poor sleep has been associated with a decrease in memory, lifespan, attention, learning, and metabolism, and an increase in inflammation, fatigue, stress, and depression. And pain.

A survey of the existing research investigating the relationship between pain and poor sleep reveals that individuals with poor sleep are more at risk for developing pain than their well-rested counterparts. Chronic sleep deprivation, or troubled sleep – characterized by difficulty falling asleep or frequent awakenings – is a form of stress. Stressful situations trigger the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the body’s stress response, to kick into high alert. When the HPA axis is activated, a cascade of events take place, resulting in elevated cortisol levels. Intermittently, more cortisol is great if you need to quickly mobilize energy stores to outrun an attacker or save a baby cat from a burning building. But chronically elevated cortisol levels can wreak havoc on the body’s tissues, and disturbances of HPA function are associated with new onset of chronic widespread pain.

The takeaway: sleep matters!

We need to consider sleep as one factor among many, including diet, physical activity, etc. that contribute toward quality of life. One researcher characterized sleep as “a natural muscle relaxation agent” (Kaila-Kangas, 2006), and that description could not be more spot on. So what can you do to form better sleep habits? Establish a pre-bedtime routine like avoiding caffeinated drinks several hours before bed, turning off the TV, closing the laptops, and laying aside the smartphones. Create a sleep-friendly environment with blackout drapes, white noise machines, and cooler temperatures. Prioritize quality sleep the way you would a healthier diet or a more active lifestyle. Give it a shot and share your secrets to success in the comments below!

Contact Oahu Spine and Rehab at 808-488-5555 to get your body back in tip-top shape! Many patients benefit from a combination of rest and OSR’s holistic and integrated physical medicine care. Ask for Sara in the PT Department of OSR’s Kailua office and check out the offer below!


CDC Press Releases. CDC. 2016. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0215-enough-sleep.html. Accessed November 9, 2016.

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Mork P, Vik K, Moe B, Lier R, Bardal E, Nilsen T. Sleep problems, exercise and obesity and risk of chronic musculoskeletal pain: The Norwegian HUNT study. The European Journal of Public Health. 2013;24(6):924-929. doi:10.1093/eurpub/ckt198.

Vos T, Flaxman A, Naghavi M et al. Years lived with disability (YLDs) for 1160 sequelae of 289 diseases and injuries 1990–2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. The Lancet. 2012;380(9859):2163-2196. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(12)61729-2.

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