Clearing's Chronic Pain Blog

Tips for Sleeping with Chronic Pain in Your Neck, Hips, or Other Spots

The Clearing Team
The Clearing Team

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Researchers report that we tend to sleep only about 25 minutes more per night in winter. However, the winter blues, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and cold can make us feel more tired, and it can feel tougher to get the rest and relaxation we need to deal with chronic pain. Having pain in different parts of the body presents its own challenges, too.

Why is sleep so important? Can it really help with chronic pain?

Good sleep helps us ward off illnesses while also making us a little less sensitive to chronic pain. While sleeping, we are busy pruning unnecessary neural connections in the brain, processing memories and taking a break from the many demands of being conscious. 

We don’t yet know all the reasons we sleep or exactly how sleep helps us, but we do know that most adults need at least seven hours of it a night, and that trying to scrimp on sleep can often hike our blood pressure and lead to fuzzier, more impaired thinking, weight gain and shorter overall life spans. 

Those of us with chronic pain often have particular trouble sleeping — up to 66 percent of people with chronic pain struggle with insomnia and general sleep disturbances, after all. Not fair. Particularly since pain makes it even harder to sleep well, and sleeping badly can also increase chronic pain. And so on and so forth until something breaks the cycle. 

Fortunately, that something can be you. While finding a way to get enough sleep can be a challenge for sure, certain strategies and techniques that are under your control bring you closer to real rest and relaxation, along with lower pain levels. 

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So what are some tips for solid sleep habits that keep insomnia at bay?

Just like exercising well and eating right, creating a strong sleep habit can take some experimentation and persistence to find what works best for you. 

We’ll start with a few general tips: 

  • Cross over to the dark side: get black-out drapes for your bedroom or at least use an eye mask to block light that might disturb your natural sleep cycle. Light is one of the dominant factors governing sleep. The darker, the better, usually. 
  • Wind down well: as your bedtime approaches, start dimming or turning off lights. Artificial light isn’t as powerful as the sun, but it can still interfere with your circadian rhythm. You may want to play ASMR soundtracks, guided meditations, nature soundscapes, or bedtime stories if you like reassuring sounds while you drift off (a little bedtime noise can actually help, as quiet doesn’t always work for people with chronic pain, since it can be such an opportunity to focus on pain).
  • Block the blue: the blue light emitted by your screens, at least. Install apps that shift screen light away from blue and toward amber as bedtime approaches, or try blue light-blocking glasses. Light within the blue spectrum is another sleep-disruptor, so treat it carefully and try to start avoiding it an hour before bed.
  • Stick to your schedule: no dramatic shifts in sleep, no long naps, no sleeping in on weekends. Just waking up and going to sleep at the same approximate times every day. Adding exercise into your day can help tire you out enough to really rest, and staying away from sugary snacks, caffeine, or big meals within two hours of bed can help your body ease into sleep as well (try a warm bath for extra relaxation).
  • Have a good sleep set-up: a supportive mattress is good (go ahead and stick a board under your current mattress if it feels too saggy). Some people report finding sleep success with bedrooms kept at a relatively cool 65 degrees, along with layers of warm, comforting bedding and bed socks to keep toes toasty. 

Those are the basics. They help, though they don’t always get you all the way to zzzs. Chronic pain, of course, is an additional challenge. So we’ll get into a few tips specifically for sleeping with pain in different parts of the body, including the best sleep positions. 

First, though, three bonus tips for if you’re really struggling with sleeplessness or insomnia: 

  • Bumblebee breath: take a deep breath. Hum or buzz on the exhale. Keep this up for five minutes, then five more if the first round isn’t enough. Why does making bumblebee noises work? It boosts serotonin, apparently. 
  • Make your toes tense: clench your toes hard until they’re tired, then release them. This is the start of progressive muscle relaxation exercises, and may help your body begin to release tension and feel sleepier. If that seems useful, you can progress into full-body progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Put sleeplessness in context: often, insomnia is linked to depression, anxiety and other mood disturbances. If you can discover ways to reduce stress or cope with it better, you may also sleep better. For some, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has worked. Remember, everything else going on in your life doesn’t stay outside your bedroom door, but continues to affect you even when you’re trying to rest.

Now for the best sleep positions, including how to sleep with neck pain, back pain and hip or SI joint pain.

How should I sleep with neck pain?

The neck is a sensitive place, full of important structures and subject to a lot of wear and tear. You can give your neck a hand by trying to keep your spine aligned while sleeping and by finding the pillow that matches your sleep style: 

  • If you’re a back sleeper, try a contoured cervical pillow that cradles the head, which can reduce pressure on the neck
  • If you prefer your side, a contoured cervical pillow or a feather pillow may be your friend
  • If you tend to sleep on your stomach, slowly try to break that habit, since that position can put stress on the neck tissues and joints

How should I sleep with back pain?

Do you twist while sleeping or shift around much? Those adjustments may be putting extra strain on an already aching back. Instead, you may want to learn about the best sleep positions for back pain, including lower back pain. So: 

  • Try sleeping on your side while bending your knees a little
  • Put a firm pillow behind your back to help hold you in place. A soft body pillow or feather pillow between your knees may make you feel more comfortable
  • If you prefer sleeping on your back, tuck a small pillow under your knees to keep your lower back from arching and possibly hurting more
  • If you can’t seem to stop sleeping on your stomach, stick a pillow under your hips at night to keep your back from arching too much

How should I sleep with hip pain or SI joint pain?

It’s hard to escape hip or SI joint pain, and sleeping can actually put a fair amount of stress on sore hips. If that sounds like you:

  • Consider a firm or medium-firm mattress for better hip support
  • Try to become a side sleeper, to stay off your back and to use pillows to keep you positioned on your side
  • A hip pillow or specially padded pajamas may help

Is there anything else I can do about sleeping with chronic pain? 

A lot of sleep advice for those of us with chronic pain boils down to combining good sleep hygiene with a supportive sleep position and sleep aids. Sadly, many of us struggle with pain in multiple sites, so we may need to work extra hard to find the ideal combination of padding, pillows and supportive everyday habits. 

Arm-positioning slings to prevent sore or numb shoulders and padded clothing may help, as may NSAIDs that last through the night. Experts advise not fighting bouts of insomnia or trying to perform repetitive mental tasks to lull you back to sleep — it may be best to get up and turn to reading, puzzles, or a hobby you have ready to go, then return to bed once you feel sleepy.

While melatonin, pain creams or CBD may also help, experts caution against relying on sleeping pills too much, as they may introduce dependency and may not help as much as changing sleep-related behaviors. 

A few remaining things you may want to try include:

  • Eat a helping of carbs or a serving of fruit (especially cherries) with dinner. It’s the tryptophan in those foods that may bring on a little more sleepiness
  • Move throughout the day. Walks, yoga and stretches help coax your body into the kind of tiredness that makes sleeping easier 
  • Build a bed-time routine that doesn’t vary, which helps train your body for bed. This could include transitioning into a wind-down activity like journaling, doing a puzzle or working on Lego, then taking a hot Epsom-salt bath, picking a calming book, podcast or set of music, using pillow mists or room scents you find calming, donning comfortable pajamas or sleeping clothes, drinking a good tea, and intentionally feeling gratitude as you shift from worrying about the day toward enjoying a break from it. Often the very fact of having a routine helps as much as the various steps you follow. 

We’d love to! Our program is tailored for each individual person. We want to hear about you and what you’re going through, and then we want to find the things that will best support you. For you, that might include personalized home exercises, non-opioid prescription compound pain cream, nutraceuticals, CBD cream and access to advanced chronic pain specialists. It’s easy to get started today.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your individual needs and medical conditions.