Getting a good night’s sleep is often difficult for chronic pain patients. Lack of sleep not only leaves them tired, irritable and in more pain – it makes them far less likely to exercise according to researchers.
“Engaging in physical activity is a key treatment process in pain management. Very often, clinicians would prescribe exercise classes, physiotherapy, walking and cycling programs as part of the treatment, but who would like to engage in these activities when they feel like a zombie?”, says Dr. Nicole Tang, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK..
In a study published in PLoS One, Tang and her research team found that sleep was a worthy target for treating chronic pain — and not just as a solution for insomnia.
Researchers examined the day-to-day association between night-time sleep and daytime physical activity in 119 chronic pain patients who suffered from insomnia.
Most of the patients had lower back pain (73%), but they also hurt in more than one location, such as their legs, neck, shoulders, knees, arms, upper back and joints.
Participants wore a device called an accelerometer that monitored their physical activity round the clock for a week – both while asleep and awake. They also kept diaries and rated their sleep quality, pain intensity and mood every morning on waking.
Surprisingly, it was the quality of sleep that was the best predictor of physical activity the next day – not mood or pain intensity.
“We found that chronic pain patients spontaneously engaged in more physical activity following a better night of sleep.” said Tang.
“The finding challenges the conventional target of treatment being primarily focused on changing what patients do during the day. Sleep has a naturally recuperative power that is often overlooked in pain management. A greater treatment emphasis on sleep may help patients improve their daytime functioning and hence their quality of life.”
A good night’s sleep may do more than promote physical activity. A 2012 study suggests that getting more sleep will also reduce your sensitivity to pain.
The small study by researchers at Henry Ford and Wayne State University involved 18 healthy, pain-free, and tired volunteers. They were randomly assigned to either four nights of their usual amount of sleep or an extended sleep period of 10 hours in bed per night.
The extended sleep group slept an average of 1.8 hours more per night. The added sleep not only increased their daytime alertness, it also reduced their sensitivity to pain in a heat test.