In today’s computer screen and connected environment, many of us don’t sleep well. Add in too much Starbucks or a Red Bull, and it’s a wonder any of can get some z’s. However, few of us connect that poor sleep with pain, despite research showing that one may cause the other. This morning let’s look at some new research that strengthens the case that anyone in chronic pain should be looking at how soundly they sleep.
What Is Insomnia?
Do you often have trouble falling asleep? Or do you often wake up in the middle of the night or too early in the morning and can’t get back to sleep? Does your lack of sleep cause you to be less productive and focused on work and other tasks during the day? If so, and it’s lasted for at least one month or longer, you likely fall under the definition of insomnia. Insomnia can be an issue all on its own, but it can also be caused by certain medications (or other chemical substances) or health problems.
Insomnia can be acute (lasting a short time) or it can be chronic (long-term). We’ve probably all had bouts of brief insomnia—triggered perhaps by a break-up, money-issues worries, or even symptoms from a common cold or seasonal allergies, for example. However, when insomnia plays out for a month or longer and is consistently disrupting our ability to focus, draining our energy, and even making us irritable, insomnia has become a chronic issue that really needs to be dealt with before it starts to have an impact on our health as well.
While insomnia can be the secondary result of something (e.g., depression, sleep apnea, cancer, etc.), as a primary issue, insomnia can also result in something else. One new study, for example, investigated links previously found between insomnia and musculoskeletal pain. In this study, chronic musculoskeletal pain was defined as pain in specific areas of the body (e.g., neck, back, etc.), while chronic widespread musculoskeletal pain was defined as pain all over. Participants (aged 20–70) without chronic musculoskeletal pain were selected for the study, completed questionnaires on insomnia, and were followed after a decade to determine the development of musculoskeletal pain.
Researchers concluded that there was an increased risk of both chronic and chronic widespread musculoskeletal pain in those who had insomnia. They also found that those who had insomnia and developed chronic musculoskeletal pain had pain in three or more regions of the body. Additionally, no region of the body was immune; there was an increased risk of pain in every body region (e.g., neck, shoulders, upper back, elbows, hips, etc.) in those with insomnia.
We’ve also seen the reverse situation, where sleep issues were the secondary effect, or result of, musculoskeletal pain, specifically knee and back pain. So chronic insomnia isn’t something to be blown off. Oftentimes it’s either a sign that there’s something else causing it, or it’s a warning that more may follow, such as musculoskeletal pain and other issues.
The Problems with Sleep Deprivation in General
Sleep deprivation, in general, is all too common in our fast-paced world today. Many of us just can’t seem to get it all done and still fit in the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep each night. While simply getting less than the recommended hours of sleep at night may not necessarily fit the clinical definition of insomnia, sleep deprivation can also lead to big problems.
Sleep deprivation has also been associated with an increased vulnerability to pain, less mental focus, and depression. Sleep deprivation may also contribute to more sports injuries in teen athletes. In addition, disruptions in our normal circadian rhythm, the body’s biological day-night cycle clock, have even been shown to cause a reduction in the effectiveness of our stem cells to repair tissues and may also cause stem cells in our fat to multiply and make more fat, increasing the risk for weight gain and obesity.
So if you fall somewhere on the sleep deprivation scale, whether it’s not getting the recommended amount of sleep, or it’s full-blown severe chronic insomnia, or it’s any point in between, don’t ignore it. Proper sleep is the ultimate rejuvenator and self-healer, so don’t be resigned to allowing your body to skimp on it.
The upshot? If you have pain, the first thing you can do at home is to look at your sleep. Do you get eight hours? Does your spouse say you snore? No spouse? Buy one of those new phone connected devices to check your sleep quality. I’ve noticed for many years that the average chronic pain patient has poor sleep, sometimes due to the pain. So check first on your sleep, you’ll be glad you did!