How to Sleep with Pain

Sleep? Sometimes it seems impossible just when we need it the most. These are my best ideas for getting to sleep and staying asleep with chronic pain. If you have more ideas to add please leave a comment!

1. Give yourself time to relax. Even if you only have a few minutes for yourself make sure to claim that time and use it to your advantage. It helps to prepare in advance by stocking your nightstand with your favorite things. Consider books, music, a journal, needlework, soothing balms and lotions, etc.

More ideas for relaxation: decaf teas, warm baths, gentle stretching, talking to your pet, and massaging your own feet and hands.

2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation. After you practice it a few times you won’t need a script to follow. You will be able to do it stretched out in bed, eyes closed. Try this Progressive Muscle Relaxation from Arthritis Today.

Click here for more about the benefits of Arthritis Today.

3. Use your nose. If you like scents its nice to wear a little perfume/cologne or hand lotion to sleep. There are other scent options as well, such as a bowl of spices or coffee beans. A scent can be truly comforting if you wake up suddenly in the night. Its one way to alleviate those terrible moments in the dark, in silence, alone with pain. Scented candles are another good option because some have a nice scent even without being lit, and the whole room smells nice. Of course make sure to snuff them out before you shut your eyes.

4. Find a great pillow. A bad pillow can quite literally become a pain the neck. We would all love to have a top quality mattress, but they’re expensive. So consider trying out some different pillows, especially if you have upper body pain. And pillows aren’t just for propping up our heads. The right size and shape of pillow can be used in many different ways to support our most painful areas.

5. Make the bed as comforting as possible. This can be a tricky one. There was a time when I had 2 options: 1) Try sleeping on a wrinkly sheet and wake up constantly every time one of those wrinkles snuck under some part of me that already felt like it was on fire or 2) Re-make the bed and hurt even more than before, and then try to sleep.

The point is, if you do have the energy, smooth those sheets and plump up the pillows. Open a bedroom window for a while before bedtime to let in fresh air. Invest in a heated blanket or heated mattress pad if warmth comforts you (A hot water bottle works too).

6. FLEECE sheets! I wish I had these years ago. They are such a comfort for aching limbs. My mom got me these sheets from QVC. I am not paid to promote this product or the seller. I am telling you about these specifically because they wash really well and still feel so soft, just like when they were new. There are other brands out there. If you have a favorite let me know!

7. No arguments before bedtime. Otherwise you might be up all night like me reviewing the battle and confirming the justice of your logic.

8. Exercise. Even a workout as short as 20 minutes will have me feeling better and more peaceable by bedtime. Timing matters though. Some people can exercise late in the evening and still sleep well. Most probably need an afternoon or early morning regimen.

9. A pre-sleep schedule. I resisted this idea for literally years. I am somewhat stubborn. So the idea is to plan out your pre-sleep activities, including your relaxation time, and stick to them. I will begin chamomile tea drinking precisely at 21:30! Then I will wash my face! Then I will watch a silly TV show! I’m just kidding…sort of. I am not sure if the whole routine promotes sleep exactly, but I think it can be comforting and relaxing. And that feeling of comfort promotes relaxation even with pain. Also its a nice feeling to know that at a scheduled time I will go into relaxation mode :).

Its convenient to have bad day and good day schedules. A good day schedule might include a little time for reading and a cup of tea. A bad day schedule might include a soak in the tub and meditation. I like good and bad day schedules because I can add an extra task to the to-do list on the days when my pain level is lower. Then on the bad days I take a little extra time for myself.

10. Make the bed a sanctuary. We have all heard this one before – stay out of the bed except for sleep and sex. However with pain sometimes that is just not going to happen. I know because a bed was practically my only source of comfort for three years. Any moment I had to spare I spent on that bed.

But if you are fortunate enough to have another place to rest I suggest trying out the bed as sanctuary idea. It helps.

11. Mental distraction techniques. There are a lot of ways to count sheep. Here are some examples: Think of something you are grateful for, for every letter of the alphabet. Think of a decadent food for every letter of the alphabet. Repeat with healthy foods. Count backwards in 3s from 100. Make up sentences with an even number of syllables. Plan in your mind for a happy/enjoyable event. If you’re a crafter, think about future projects and imagine all the little details of creating something wonderful.

12. Keep other pain distracters within reach. Have you tried listening to music, radio, or audio books to fall asleep? Or how about a guided imagery CD? They can help to quiet the mind while distracting it from all those pain signals. And if you just really cannot sleep these could at least provide you with some relaxation and entertainment.

There is also a guided imagery script in Living a Healthy Life with Chronic Conditions, as well as other distraction and relaxation techniques.

13. Wrap your ouchiest parts in softness. Or keep them wrapped instead with warmth or even coolness if it helps. I had a really soft robe that I used to wrap around my arms. It felt nice, kept them somewhat immobilized, and protected them from feeling any other sensations but the robe, thereby increasing my chances of falling asleep. It occurs to me one of those microwaveable heat wraps might be nice to use when going to sleep. A refrigerated wrap might be preferable for some. I don’t recommend using either an electric heating pad or ice – in case of accidents.

14. Move a little. Late evening exercise might keep you awake but a little movement of some kind could help you feel more comfortable even before you try sleeping. Gentle stretching falls under this category, and even progressive  muscle relaxation. Yoga enthusiasts will enjoy this Bedtime Yoga Routine from Another idea is to schedule a private lesson with a yoga instructor. Ask the instructor to teach you some beginner exercises, including restful yoga moves suitable for bedtime.

15. Think statue. My last hint is an odd one but it has worked like a charm for many years. I learned to sleep almost without moving. I found one position I could tolerate and maintained that position for most of the night. My back, thankfully, did not hurt from contact with the sheets, so I laid on my back with my arms tucked closely at my sides, palms upward. I still do this. In fact I do this for MRIs and the nurses are always surprised because they think it looks uncomfortable. But it was the least painful position I could find for myself and still helps me get to sleep on my bad days.