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The Benefits of Sleep on Health, Neck Pain and Back Pain

By Christopher Yeung, MD

Sleep and pain management often are closely related, as the body requires restorative sleep to heal. There are numerous benefits of sleep for neck and back pain as well as overall health. If you experience chronic pain, finding the best way to sleep for back pain can help you experience the deep, restful, and healing sleep your body needs. Learn how to sleep with low back pain and how quality sleep can help heal your body.

What Causes Back and Neck Pain After or During Sleep?

If you experience back pain after sleeping or chronic pain and sleep problems, you may have difficulty getting a good night of rest. Waking up from a night of sleep to back or neck pain can make going about your day difficult or uncomfortable. Neck and back pain are common and are often one of the first things someone notices when waking up in the morning. While there are several causes of neck and back pain, some of the most common causes include:

  • Sleeping position: Your sleep posture plays an important role in your overall comfort and whether you experience back or neck pain and stiffness. Poor sleeping posture can add stress and pressure onto the spinal column, causing the natural curve to flatten. This pressure adds stress to the joints and maybe why you are experiencing back pain more frequently.
  • Unsupportive mattress: A supportive and comfortable mattress is essential to a good night’s rest. If a mattress is old or unsupportive, it may be leading to back and neck stiffness and pain. If a mattress is old or uncomfortable, you should consider switching out your bed for a new, more supportive mattress. A bad mattress also leads to lower sleep quality, which affects energy levels throughout the day.
  • Bad pillows: The wrong pillow can worsen neck and back pain and lead to discomfort and stiffness throughout the day. A pillow that is too thin may not provide adequate support to the neck. On the other hand, a pillow that is too thick may stretch the neck and put excess pressure or tension on the upper spine and neck.
  • Previous injury: A previous injury may cause acute or chronic pain. If you have a current injury, your quality of sleep is likely to be affected. Even injuries that have healed may still negatively impact your sleep. Chronic or long-term pain is one of the leading causes of poor sleep that results in neck and back pain. Research has also shown that sleep disturbance is common following traumatic brain injury, affecting approximately 30% to 70% of individuals.
  • Sudden movement: Sudden or irregular movements in your sleep or when waking up can lead to pain and discomfort. Some of the most common movements that may cause strain on the body include sitting up quickly, moving your arms or legs irregularly or sharply turning your neck. These movements may cause tension and discomfort in the neck and spine and worsen acute or chronic pain symptoms.
  • Pregnancy: Back pain is an extremely common side effect of being pregnant, with low back pain being one of the most common musculoskeletal complaints among pregnant women. While back pain can occur at any time during pregnancy, it often occurs later in the pregnancy as the baby continues to grow. Many women may feel back pain or soreness later in pregnancy as the back must quickly adapt to carrying more weight.

How Sleep Heals and Relieves Pain

Sleep is a critical process that plays an essential aspect in your body recovering and healing from the day. While we sleep, our body’s biological systems are active, renewing and repairing on a cellular level. Sleep plays a vital role in our body’s weight maintenance, immunity, and mood. Studies have shown one in three adults doesn’t get enough sleep, dramatically affecting the body’s various processes.

There is a common link between pain and sleep. While pain often affects the quality of sleep, sleep also plays an important role in managing pain. Short amounts of sleep, poor sleep quality, and fragmented sleep can heighten pain sensitivity. Pain and sleep appear to share similar neurotransmitters and pathways.

Melatonin is known for its role in helping to regulate the circadian rhythm. Ongoing research continues to reveal melatonin’s role in our ability to perceive pain. A lack of proper sleep has also been shown to lead to increased inflammation. Additionally, sleep deprivation has been found to directly affect the pain threshold and the brain’s capacity for pain, making people more sensitive to pain. If we cannot get proper rest, our bodies are more susceptible to pain and discomfort.

Fibromyalgia is a condition closely affected by pain and sleep. For patients with fibromyalgia, improved sleep has been shown to decrease painful symptoms. Sleep deprivation increases pain sensitivity by numbing the brain’s pain-killing response.

Proper sleep has several healing abilities, including:

Decreasing pain sensitivity: Sleep deprivation can change the brain’s circuitry and amplify pain. Adequate sleep can help restore proper pain sensitivity levels and allows our brain’s pain-killing response to work properly.

Promotes healing: As you sleep, your brain and body can focus on recovering and healing. If you experience an injury when you sleep, the brain releases hormones that encourage tissue growth to repair blood vessels. This process helps wounds heal faster and restores damaged or sore tissues, muscles, and joints.

Improves mental health: Many people who have chronic pain often experience negative moods or even depression. Mental health can also take a toll on the physical body. Depression can lead to loss of appetite, sleep disturbances and lower physical activity levels, contributing to worsening physical pain. A proper sleep schedule can improve mood, anxiety, and depressive symptoms.

Provides energy: One of the most obvious and important aspects of sleep is that it provides us with energy. Sleep allows both our body and mind to recharge and recover from the day’s events. Sleep is vital for our body’s various physical processes and immune system functioning. Without an adequate amount of sleep, the body and brain are unable to function properly.

Does Lack of Sleep Make Pain Worse?

Sleep and healing injuries are closely related. A lack of sleep can contribute to increased pain sensitivity and inhibit your brain’s ability to manage painful symptoms properly. While a lack of sleep does not necessarily increase the amount of pain someone has, it can increase how much pain they perceive. Many conditions may affect your ability to sleep. One of the most common medical reasons for poor sleep is insomnia.

How Does Insomnia Affect Sleep and Pain Levels?

Insomnia is categorized as difficulty falling or staying asleep. Insomnia may have several causes, but chronic pain is a leading cause of insomnia. In many cases, chronic pain and insomnia are co-occurring conditions that often directly affect one another. Those with chronic pain may have difficulty falling asleep or getting comfortable enough to stay asleep, resulting in insomnia. On the other hand, insomnia often causes sleep deprivation, causing increased sensitivity to pain.

Research has found that chronic pain patients report higher levels of pain if they experience insomnia than those chronic pain patients who do not have trouble sleeping. Sleep disturbance often causes more frequent and longer periods of being awake while sleeping, longer sleep onset, and lower sleep efficiency. Insomnia treatments include prescription medication and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Tips to Avoid Back Pain While Sleeping

Sleep and chronic pain often go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, pain can wake you up from sleep and make falling asleep difficult. Back pain after sleeping is a common issue many people may face, which negatively impacts their quality of sleep and day-to-day life. Not sleeping because of pain can cause a person to miss out on essential restorative sleep that the body needs. If you can’t sleep because of pain, you may want to consider these tips:

1. Choose the Right Mattress

Sleeping with pain can be difficult and cause you to feel tired or uncomfortable. Choosing the right mattress often comes down to personal taste and finding what type of mattress works best for you. A bed should be comfortable yet supportive and let you wake up feeling rested and rejuvenated. A proper mattress can also help to lessen back and neck soreness and pain.

A mattress should support the natural curvature of your neck and spine and provide adequate support. If you sleep with a partner, you will also want to make sure you have enough space on the mattress to find a comfortable sleeping position and reposition throughout the night as needed. In most cases, the lifespan of a mattress is eight years.

2. Select a Supportive Pillow

In addition to a comfortable mattress, selecting a supportive and comfortable pillow can help improve sleep and minimize neck pain. Neck pain and sleep can be difficult and cause people to miss out on the vital restorative sleep they need. Choosing the right pillow can provide support and help you find a more comfortable sleeping position.

While many people may think of a traditional pillow for the neck and back, other pillow types can support the spine and legs to help you sleep in a comfortable and proper position. Head and body pillows should provide support for the natural curve of your neck and body. If a pillow is too high, it can strain the neck, shoulders and back, potentially worsening uncomfortable symptoms.

3. Match Your Pillow's Height to Your Sleeping Position

In addition to selecting a supportive and comfortable pillow, you will also want to match your pillow height to your sleeping position. For example, a back sleeper may benefit from a relatively thinner pillow that is more likely to support the neck properly. An overly thick or fluffy pillow for a back sleeper may cause excess neck tension.

On the other hand, side sleepers often need a thicker pillow than those who sleep on their back that will help properly position the neck and head. Finally, stomach sleepers often need the thinnest pillow compared to back and side sleepers. Sleeping on the stomach places more strain on the spine and neck, which is often worsened by too thick of a pillow. In some cases, a physician may even recommend stomach sleepers try a new sleeping position that supports the neck and back.

4. Stretch Before Bed

Understanding how to sleep to avoid neck pain can help minimize uncomfortable symptoms and promote better sleep. Stretching before bed can help you sleep with back pain and improve discomfort. Stretching your neck and back before sleep can loosen tight muscles, alleviate tension and decompress joints. Additionally, stretching out tight muscles is an excellent way to prevent pain from worsening or occurring as you lie down in bed.

Research has shown that stretching and strengthening your back and abdominal muscles can improve back pain and also prevent a recurrence of the problem. You should speak with a physician to determine what stretches may be best for your symptoms. Consulting with a physician can help you create an effective stretching routine that will not stress or strain painful areas of the back and neck.

5. Get the Right Amount of Sleep

Getting the right amount of restorative sleep a night can directly improve your health. Creating and following a consistent sleep schedule allows you to get adequate sleep and let your body rest. Restorative sleep can help improve pain and back discomfort while letting your body heal and rejuvenate.

While the amount of sleep each person needs varies, research has shown that a healthy adult should sleep for seven to nine hours each night. Studies also show that sleep loss heightens pain sensitivity and dulls the brain’s pain-killing response. Poor sleep can worsen painful symptoms and make daily life more uncomfortable for chronic back or neck pain.

6. Be Aware of Your Sleeping Position

Your sleeping position can directly impact your quality of sleep and the potential for experiencing muscle tension, strain or pain. While changing how you sleep may be difficult at first, it can have many health benefits down the line. Certain sleep positions can help alleviate stress and pressure from the spine, keeping your spine and neck in a natural and comfortable position.

Keeping your spine neutral or in the most natural position while sleeping can help reduce pain. There are numerous sleep positions to relieve neck pain and manage back pain. Finding the sleeping position that works best for you can help you enjoy a better night of rest.

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