If you roll out of bed bleary-eyed each day, thinking, “Oh, my aching [insert painful joint here],” you’re not alone.
Research shows that between 50 and 90 percent of people with chronic joint pain don’t sleep well. And, that sleep deprivation can lead to other health issues, including low energy, mood disorders and eating problems.
If you have chronic pain in your hips, knees or shoulders, there are things you can do to limit how much the discomfort affects your nighttime rest, says Michael Schaefer, MD, Director of Musculoskeletal Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at Cleveland Clinic.
“A healthy brain is a well-rested brain. It can deal better with pain, such as arthritis, on an ongoing basis,” he says. “Lack of sleep, on the other hand, can directly affect your mood, and a bad mood can make it harder to cope with pain. This can become a vicious cycle.”
When you need a doctor
Some problems with broken sleep patterns are normal as we age, Dr. Schaefer says, but you shouldn’t wake up and stay awake every night because of pain. If that’s your situation, consult your primary care physician.
“If the pain goes on for more than three or four days in a row or intermittently for two to three weeks, it’s time to get it addressed,” he says. “If the pain is so severe that you require alcohol or over-the-counter sleep aids to fall sleep, then it’s worth getting it looked at.”
See your doctor if you have joint pain and:
- The pain isn’t in a typical spot for arthritis
- You’re losing weight unexpectedly
- Have a fever or chills
- Experience night sweats
- Have a history of cancer
Any of those problems can indicate a more serious condition in need of immediate medical attention, Dr. Schaefer says.
Get into a good sleep position
Finding the right position can be the most crucial part of avoiding pain during sleep. Twisting and turning to find a comfortable spot is normal, Dr. Schaefer says, but even the slightest twinge of pain can disrupt your rest. He recommends you start out sleeping on your side – avoiding a sore shoulder if you have one – with a pillow between your legs. Try to avoid lying flat on your back.
Side-sleeping won’t work for all shoulder pain, though. Minimize that discomfort by wrapping your arm in a bandage or wearing a sling to bed. It will keep your arm immobile and prevent you from sleeping with your arm in an awkward position.
Other tips offer sleep relief for all
There are additional, pain-specific steps you can take to decrease nighttime discomfort, Dr. Schaefer says. He also offers some general sleep recommendations to help nearly anyone, not only pain sufferers.
- Find the right mattress. For back, hip and knee pain, Dr. Schaefer recommends a firm mattress. Add a foam pad on top if you need it to help evenly distribute your weight and keep your joints in alignment.
- Take appropriate medication. If you’re using regular acetaminophen or ibuprofen and your pain breaks through the night, consider switching to a different pain reliever. Dr. Schaefer recommends pain killers that last between 12 and 24 hours, such as naproxen (Aleve®).
- Maintain good sleep hygiene. Keep your sleep schedule as consistent as possible – turn off the television, put all electronics away, turn off lights and keep your room as quiet as you can.
- Avoid substance aids. Alcohol might make you drowsy, but it won’t give you restful sleep. People often wake up after a few hours of drinking.
- Minimize how often you use over-the-counter sleep aids. If you take them too long, you’ll need higher doses and may have trouble breaking this habit.
- Do low-impact exercises. Regularly scheduled low-impact exercise, such as walking, bicycling or swimming, can help with both pain and sleep disorders.
Why sleep can hurt
Normal joint pain, especially in the hips, knees and shoulders, frequently worsens at night, he says. Your sleep position and the alignment of your body are responsible for most of the pain, but some comes from being so still at night.
“Joints swell at night, and motion gradually lubricates them and keeps the fluids moving round,” Dr. Schaefer says. “When you stop moving, they can swell more.” This can cause stiffness and pain, he says.