The pain-sleep connection, and the hidden sleep wrecker

We know that humans need sleep, although it’s not clear why. What we do know is that sleep clears toxins from the brain, and that it regenerates the body and mind.

Yet, for some reason, the medical establishment does not see the connection between sleep and pain … even though a third of Americans suffer chronic pain, and almost the same number don’t get the minimum RDA of sleep.

Daily sound sleep for 8 hours could provide a simple, natural means of pain reduction and prevention. And several studies back this up.

The pain story

Pain is a huge problem for the body and the mind and spirit. There’s a real loss of joy for life, reduced physical activity and the onset of depression that often accompany chronic pain.

About 10 years ago the American Pain Foundation conducted a survey that evaluated the impact chronic pain had on over 300 chronic pain sufferers who were taking strong opiods daily to make it through their days.

Here is how the participants responded to the survey:

  • 51% felt they had little or no control over their pain
  • 60% said they experience breakthrough pain one or more times daily, severely impacting their quality of life and overall well-being
  • 59% reported an impact on their overall enjoyment of life
  • 77% reported feeling depressed
  • 70% said they have trouble concentrating
  • 74% said their energy level is impacted by their pain
  • 86% reported an inability to sleep well

Those are not happy responses and certainly no way to live a happy, fulfilled life.

But there is one safe and natural means of reducing pain, and that is getting a solid 8 hours of undisturbed sleep per night. Yet so many of us don’t get enough sleep, and so sleep deprivation becomes a cofounder to chronic pain.

The sleep story

Sleep deprivation is a serious problem that not only prevents the body from the full recuperation and recovery it needs, but causes accidents and injuries and leads to heart disease and depression.

If people could just get enough sleep, life would be better. The National Institutes of Health suggest the following sleep guidelines:

  • School-age children = 10 hrs daily
  • Teenagers = 9-10 hrs daily
  • Adults = 7-8 hrs daily

The problem is, with stress, responsibilities, and advances in technology that fragment our attention, sleep hours for all Americans has decreased steadily over the past half-century. In fact, a recent study looked directly at the link between this epidemic of chronic sleep deprivation and the epidemic of chronic pain.

The pain-sleep connection

A recent study published in the online journal PLOS One set out to examine the effect sleep had on the physical activity the following day of patients who suffer both chronic pain and insomnia.

For the study, 119 chronic pain patients monitored their sleep and physical activity for a week in their usual sleeping and living environment.  The results were very interesting:

“SQ [sleep quality] was the only significant within-person predictor of subsequent physical activity, such that nights of higher sleep quality were followed by days of more physical activity, from noon to 11pm. The temporal association was not explained by potential confounders such as morning pain, mood or effects of the circadian rhythm.”

The more sleep chronic pain sufferers got at night, the more energy they had the next day and thus the more physical activity they engaged in.

Why is that important? Because many who suffer chronic pain do not have the energy to engage in physical activity (even walking, grocery shopping, house cleaning and other seemingly-simple things).

Getting better sleep

I previously have written several articles on how to get a better night’s sleep and overcome insomnia. The essentials to a better night sleep are:

  • Go to bed the same time every night.
  • Wake up the same time every morning.
  • Do not eat within 3 hours of bedtime.
  • Do not consume alcohol or caffeine within 6 hours of bedtime
  • Create a comfortable, dark and quiet sleeping environment
  • Don’t read in bed, especially from a backlit eReader.

The last point is a new problem with a direct effect on sleep quantity and quality.

eReaders – the hidden sleep wreckers

Well, with all new inventions comes a period of time before people notice changes in their health. And when the number of complaints reaches critical mass, someone conducts a study. Lucky for us, a new study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, looked into the negative effects of the “evening use of light-emitting eReaders and how they negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness.”

The study researchers found that when people use eReaders before bedtime, there are several very clear side effects:

  • It takes longer to fall asleep
  • It delays the circadian clock
  • It suppresses levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin
  • It delays the timing of REM sleep
  • It reduces alertness the following morning

The reason for these adverse effects is that these devices increase alertness at bedtime, even more so than reading a printed book (which also is not recommended for insomniacs). Being more alert means it’s more difficult to fall into sleep. According to researchers:

“This negative impact on sleep may be due to the short-wavelength–enriched light emitted by these electronic devices, given that artificial-light exposure has been shown experimentally to produce alerting effects, suppress melatonin, and phase-shift the biological clock.”


As a chronic pain sufferer myself, I know it is easy to say “just get more sleep and you will have less pain and derive more energy.” Yet, pain is what keeps many sufferers from sleeping deeply at all, let alone through the night. It’s a vicious circle, a catch 22: sleep provides more energy for physical activity; and physical activity reduces pain; but pain prevents sleep.

All we can do is understand the pain-sleep connection, know that it is real, and take steps to improve sleep by avoiding eReaders, caffeine, food, exercise and other things at night that keep us alert, and doing this enough to create a new habit that will allow us to fall asleep more easily and for longer duration. In the mornings, we’ll feel better and have more energy to do more physical things.



Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.