How To Sleep Well With Back Pain – 7 Ways To Get A Good Nights Sleep

Sleep can be hard to come by for people with chronic lower back pain but it doesn't have to be that way. Find out how you can sleep better here. 

how to sleep

A good night's sleep is crucial for your physical and mental health and well-being. 

As this is the time when your body and mind rest, heal and rejuvenate ready for the challenges ahead. ​

However it can remain elusive if you suffer from chronic lower back pain.​ 

And there’s nothing more frustrating is there? 

Staring at the ceiling for hours on end. 

And feeling like crap the following day.​

You find that you can’t think straight. 

And you are like a bear with a sore head not wanting to talk to anyone. 

And when you do you bite their heads off.

On top of that your back pain feels even worse than usual.

And dealing with this pain as well as your tiredness has worn you out even more.

So by the time you get home you feel completely exhausted.

However even though you’ve been craving your bed all day and a good night’s sleep sounds like heaven.

As soon as your head hits the pillow you’re wide awake again.

And you can't switch off no matter how hard you try.

You begin to anxiously notice the time getting later and later. And then earlier and earlier.

And your mind fills with worries...

‘If I don’t get to sleep soon I’ll be knackered at work again tomorrow’.

However thoughts like this only make you even more stressed which makes it even harder to sleep.

So if this scenario sounds all too familiar to you read on.

And I'll introduce you to 7 ways to break the tortuous cycle of insomnia.

Why Sleep Is So Important

Sleep is a wonderful thing.

As it’s a time when your body and mind regenerate from the stresses and strains of the previous day.

And it’s not only your body and mind that are regenerated by sleep. 

It also regenerates your central nervous system which helps to regulate your emotions and keep you on an even keel.

And the benefits of good quality restorative sleep are almost endless as it can:

  • Improve your physical condition.
  • Help to maintain your mental well-being.
  • Boost your immune system.
  • Lower your blood pressure.
  • Boost your energy levels.
  • Improve your concentration and memory.
  • Help you to maintain a healthy sex drive.

However when you are deprived of getting a decent night's sleep on a regular basis it can result in various problems such as:

  • It can lead to mental and physical fatigue during the day.
  • This fatigue can leave you at risk of picking up injuries while doing physical work and activities.
  • It can affect your moods making angry, frustrated or withdrawn.
  • This can make it hard to concentrate on things.
  • It can make you less alert and more susceptible to mistakes and accidents.
  • You can become forgetful as it becomes harder to form and retain long-term memory.
  • It can weaken your immune system making you more susceptible to picking up colds and illnesses.
  • You feel drained and tired all the time.

Do any of these problems sounds familiar? 

It’s a list that could go on and on.

However a sleep disorder that lasts for a long period can have even more serious long-term effects such as:

  • It can increase the levels of back pain you experience.
  • Lead to serious psychology problems such as depression and anxiety.
  • Put you more at risk of obesity.
  • Expose you to a greater risk of developing type II diabetes.
  • It can also lead to heart problems and cardiovascular disease.

Pretty serious stuff right?

Which makes insomnia a problem that needs tackling.

What Is Insomnia?

Mattress for back pain

In today’s increasingly busy world we are constantly being stimulated.

Whether that is by technology, social media, caffeine, alcohol, working longer hours or the stresses of modern life.

It all adds up to a heavy load on your nervous system.

And because of this sleep disorders are not uncommon. 

But what constitutes a sleep disorder such as insomnia?

Someone is said to be suffering from insomnia if they regularly struggle with one or more of the following:

  • Getting to sleep.
  • Maintaining sleep.
  • Constantly waking up throughout the night.
  • Waking up earlier than planned and being unable to get back to sleep.

These problems all lead to a sleep that is non-restorative and which leaves you feeling like crap the following day.

So if you find yourself regularly struggling to sleep then you're probably dealing with insomnia.​

Insomnia Is Common Among People With Back Pain

Unfortunately for people with back pain, problems with getting a good night’s sleep are extremely common.

For instance, research into the likelihood of insomnia in people with chronic lower back pain found that 78% of them were suffering from sleep disorders.

While another study on sleep quality found that 49.5% of people with chronic lower back pain rated their sleep quality as poor or very poor.

Compared to only 10.4% of people without back pain that rated their sleep this poorly.

And this led to more problems in everyday life too.

With 33% of people with chronic pain reporting difficulty staying awake during activities such as eating a meal, social interactions, or even when driving.

While this problem only happened to 5.3% of the people without back pain.

So a lack of sleep is not just annoying, it can be potentially dangerous too!

And on top of this a whopping 52% of the people with chronic pain complained of suffering from motivational problems at work compared to only 7.4% of people without back pain.

Just let that sink in.

That is an incredible hit your working performance is taking because of a lack of sleep.

So you are not only suffering more at night, you are struggling during the day too and your work suffers as a result.

And unfortunately there is a vicious circle here.

As not only do increased pain levels during the day make it more likely that you'll develop sleep disorders.

Sleep disorders also lead to increased pain levels.

So you need to break this cycle.

But does pain cause sleep disorders in the first place or do sleep disorders exist first and lead to chronic pain?

It's a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum.

But getting a good quality restorative sleep has been found to lower pain.

So it's crucial that you do something about your sleep problem as it plays a major part in how much pain you are in on a daily basis.

And this can help you to break the vicious circle of more pain and less sleep.

Things To Rule Out Before You Begin

Now insomnia is not always caused by your pain, stress and bad sleeping habits.

It can also be caused by certain medical conditions that you will need to get checked out by your GP.

So before I go on to explain the ways you can beat your insomnia make sure that you are not suffering from any of the following conditions:

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder where you temporarily stop breathing during your sleep.

Which sounds pretty frightening!

This usually lasts for around ten seconds at a time but it can last for up to a couple of minutes.

And this causes carbon dioxide to build up in your bloodstream.

Which wakes your brain up from it's slumber in order to breathe in oxygen again.

And as these episodes can happen up to 5 times per hour you can imagine how big a cause of insomnia this can be.

Sleep apnea is a common problem in people who are overweight, smokers and people with sinus problems.

And it can be hard to self-diagnose.

So ask your partner if they've noticed these symptoms when you are sleeping. ​

Because they will definitely have noticed the snoring that goes along with it!

Restless Legs Syndrome

I get restless legs myself from time to time and it can be really annoying.

It's a condition where as you are lying in bed trying to get to sleep your legs have uncomfortable sensations in them such as muscle spasms, tingling or buzzing which leads to an uncontrollable urge to move them.

And it can sometimes cause your limbs to jerk automatically.

Moving them gives you temporary relief but then the sensations return almost immediately which makes it very difficult ​to get to sleep.

There could be various causes of restless legs syndrome including iron deficiency or an over-reactive nervous system.

However it can also be a sign of more serious problems so it's good to get it checked out.​

Clinical Depression or Anxiety

These conditions are well known to involve sustained periods of insomnia with depression or anxiety feeding the insomnia and vice versa. 

And the medication that you need to take for these conditions may also have effects on your sleep patterns.

So if you suffer from either of these conditions to this level then you should seek advice and help from a professional beyond the scope of what I can offer here.​

​7 Ways To Improve Your Sleep and Beat Insomnia

Mattress for back pain

If you can rule out the problems in the previous section then you can try a few things to improve the length and quality of sleep you are getting. 

It's all about improving your sleep hygiene.

And despite how it sounds this has nothing to do with cleanliness! 

It’s about doing all you can to give yourself the best chance of sleeping well. 

So basically developing good habits both in regards to sleeping and your behaviours during the day.

But the problem is that we usually do the opposite without even realising it.

As we lead busy and stressful lives and it can be hard to switch off and relax.

We also work longer hours and sometimes bring that work home with us.

And we rely on stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol and nicotine to get us through each day.

Then there is technology.

Because we are now constantly connected to smartphones and the internet.

Which keeps your brain wired and craving more stimulation.

We also fill our bedrooms with stimulating distractions such as TVs, video game consoles and laptops.

And at the same time our minds are filled with work worries, family issues and financial responsibilities.

So in short modern life can be stressful.

This means that by the time your head hits the pillow at the end of the day your brain and nervous system may be so wired that you find it impossible to get to sleep.

So it’s not just your pain that is responsible for keeping you awake night after night.

What you do during the day directly contribute to it too.

However there are steps you can take to change this and I'll take you through them now.

1. Sleeping Pills

For me personally I go out of my way to steer clear of taking any kind of medication.

Even when my pain has been really bad I’ve always relied on other methods to reduce it and get me back on an even keel.

I guess I just don’t like the idea of relying on drugs or the side effects that come along with them.

insomnia

However I realise that not everyone feels this way or has the good fortune to be able to take this stance.

So for those of you that are open to it medication for treating insomnia could be a road to go down as it has been shown to be effective.

In 2014 a study was carried out on 52 people suffering from insomnia and low back pain who were already on medication for the back pain.

It was designed to see whether adding medication to treat insomnia alongside their pain medication would improve their sleep and pain levels.

And it was found that adding a drug called Eszopiclone to a patient’s regime significantly improved their sleep quality.

Which subsequently led to the patient also showing improved pain levels and fewer symptoms of depression.

By treating both the pain and insomnia with medication people showed a big improvement all round.

So if you think medication for insomnia is something you’d like to try talk it over with your doctor and discuss your options.

2. Make Your Bedroom An Oasis For Sleeping

Using your bedroom as a place to hang out, eat, watch TV, play video games or work is one of the biggest mistakes you can make when it comes to dealing with your sleep problem.

Because by doing so your brain becomes conditioned to see the bedroom as a stimulating rather than a relaxing environment.

And there should be only one form of stimulation occurring in the bedroom!

So make sure your bedroom is only used for sleeping and sex and optimise it for these purposes.

There are a few ways to do this.​

  • Keep all electronics out of the bedroom.
  • Make sure the room temperature isn't too hot or cold. A slightly cool temperature is perfect for sleep.
  • Buy some blackout blinds or curtains to stop light getting in and waking you up.
  • Keep noisy distrsactions to a minimum.
  • Don't hang out in your bedroom when you're not trying to get to sleep.

This last one will help you to relax and switch off when you are in your bedroom.

As it will condition your brain to associate the bedroom with sleeping rather than just lounging.

And by making your bedroom a restful place you are creating an environment that gives you the best chance of getting a great night’s sleep.

3. Prepare Your Mind and Body Well For Sleep

Feeling relaxed enough to fall asleep when the time comes is absolutely crucial.

However it's easy to get into bad habits that make this state difficult to achieve. 

To combat this you need to cut back on mentally and physically stimulating activities in the hours leading up to sleep.

So no late night TV or video games.

Resist the urge to work right up until bedtime.

And give social media and your phone a swerve after a certain time.

Also while regular exercise is great for maintaining a healthy sleep cycle exercising in the two hours before sleep can leave you feeling too hyped up to get to sleep.

I know that whenever I played football matches at night I always struggled to sleep afterwards because the adrenaline was still pumping through me. 

So try to fit in your workouts earlier in the day or evening.

And instead try to find activities that help you to relax in the build up to bedtime.

Relax at home

Now this all depends on what works for you.

This could include anything from listening to soothing music, reading a book, taking a bath or shower, meditating, practicing deep breathing exercises or just having a gentle stretch.

It’s all about getting into a relaxed physical and mental state before trying to get to sleep and cutting out any distractions.

4. Limiting Artificial Stimulants

​Coffee, alcohol and cigarettes all play their part in helping you get through life's trials and tribulations.

However they can also keep you up at night and affect your sleep quality.​

So while caffeine-fuelled drinks can help you to maintain energy levels and remain alert during your busy day. 

Continuing to drink them into the afternoon and evening stimulates your brain and nervous system to the extent that sleeping may become difficult.

Therefore it's important to limit the amount of coffee, tea and energy drinks that you consume throughout the day.

And also try not to consume them at all after the early afternoon.

If you do feel the need for a hot drink in the evening then why not try drinking an caffeine-free alternative such as green tea or cocoa instead?

Smokers also need to be wary as smoking keeps the brain alert and should be avoided if possible late in the evening.

Alcohol is another stimulant however it works in a different way.

As it can also help you to relax and unwind after a long day.

Which in some cases (and in small amounts) can be helpful to get you in the right frame of mind to get to sleep.

So a glass of wine in the evening can be a great way to help you to relax.​

But alcohol poses a different sleep problem.

As it disrupts your sleep and affects the quality of it.​

So while you may be getting the hours in it’s not the good quality restorative sleep that you need.

And those few drinks that help you to relax in the evening may also be the thing that is leaving you feeling tired and lethargic the following day.

Now life is not about giving up all the things you enjoy.

And the relaxing qualities that alcohol brings can serve a purpose when it comes to being able to sleep.

But keep it in moderation and try and give yourself a few alcohol free nights in the week for your body and mind to recuperate, repair and refresh.

Also by using the other techniques in this article you won't need to use alcohol as a crutch to be able to relax.​

So keep a keen eye on the stimulants you are consuming and don't allow them to affect your sleep.

5. Develop Good Sleeping Practices

There are certain sleeping habits you can develop that will help you to maximise your chances of getting a good night’s sleep.

So try and add a few of the following into your routine.​

Firstly it's important to keep regular sleeping hours.

This way your body gets trained in when it should be going to sleep and when it should be waking up.

So even at weekends, apart from the occasional lie-in, try and keep regular waking hours.

But at the same time try not to go to bed unless you are feeling sleepy. 

As forcing yourself to go to bed when you are not ready will most likely just result in you staring at the ceiling in frustration.

But by keeping regular hours your body clock should eventually cause you to feel sleepy at the right time.

Secondly, if you fail to fall asleep within 30 minutes of trying get up again.

Because just lying in bed will only make you more stressed.

Which will only make you feel more awake than ever.

So it’s a good idea to get up and try one of the activities that help you to relax such as reading for a bit.

And carry on with this until you feel sleepy then try again.

Thirdly, don’t clock watch!

As by seeing how late/early it’s getting you are just going to make yourself even more anxious about not being able to sleep.

Which will only make the problem worse.

So if there is a prominent clock in the bedroom try moving it to a position that’s out of sight.

And don’t lean over to check it!

Finally, if you do wake up in the night DON'T CHECK YOUR PHONE!

This is a terrible habit that I think most of us have.

Where the first thing we think of doing as soon as we wake up is to look at our phones.

Which is bad enough in the morning.

But in the middle of the night it can seriously hinder your chances of getting back to sleep.

Because your phone is powered by a blue light that triggers off all sorts of stimulation in your brain.

And even a few minutes of scrolling will result in your brain being wide awake and make it much harder to get back to sleep.

So when waking up in the middle of the night it’s good to get in the habit of just turning over, closing your eyes and trying to drift back off again.

Don’t check the time. Don’t check your phone. Don’t worry!

And by sticking to these rules you are giving yourself the best chance of being able to fall asleep and maintain that sleep throughout the night.

6. Choose the Best Mattress For Your Back Pain

Choosing the right mattress for your back doesn’t just increase the likelihood of getting a decent night’s sleep. 

It can also help to eliminate your back pain.​

As sleeping on the wrong kind of mattress can throw your back out of alignment and cause back pain in chronic pain sufferers and 'healthy' people alike.

And when you consider you spend a third of your life in bed this is a serious cause for concern!

The scientists agree.​

In a survey of orthopaedic surgeons 95% of them believed that the type of mattress used played a big part in how well people managed their chronic back pain.

Pretty conclusive I think.

So for people with chronic low back pain it's vital that you find a suitable mattress.

As it will help you to cope with your pain, sleep comfortably and greatly improve your quality of life.

However choosing the right mattress can ​be a confusing experience.

So I've written an article to help you do this which you can find here.

7. Change How You Think About Sleep And Pain To Beat Insomnia

Problems with sleep are not only caused by your behaviours or your pain. 

They can also be caused and maintained by how you think about sleep.

As it is thought that people with insomnia may hold negative thoughts, attitudes and beliefs about being unable to sleep.

challenge negative thoughts

That’s only logical right?

I mean it’s hard to be positive about something you have a problem doing.

However these thoughts only serve to make you anxious and frustrated.

Which in turn makes it even harder to sleep.

Research by the University of Warwick has found that chronic conditions such as back pain are directly linked with people having these negative thoughts about insomnia and their pain.

And that people that believed they wouldn't be able to sleep because of their pain were more likely to suffer from insomnia.

So when treating insomnia you also need to examine what is going on in your mind.

Now this isn’t easy to do.

But there are certain methods you can try to achieve this.

One such method is called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for insomnia (or CBTi for short).

And this has been found to be a very effective method for between 70-80% of insomnia patients.

So how does CBTi work?

It’s all about identifying negative thoughts, challenging them using evidence and experience and reframing them in a more positive and accurate way.

This will give you a far more positive attitude towards sleeping.​

And make it much easier for you to relax in both body and mind and get a good night's sleep.​

To find out more about how you could use CBTi techniques to self-treat your insomnia you can find an article I wrote about it here.

Rounding Up

I’m sure that you now have a good understanding of why a good night’s sleep is so important.

As it helps to repair, heal and regenerate your mind, body and soul. 

However when it is disrupted it can cause a multitude of health problems and lower your overall quality of life.

And sleep disorders are increasingly common today especially amongst those of us who suffer from chronic lower back pain.

However there are many ways can treat your insomnia such as:

  • Using sleep medication.
  • Turning your bedroom into the perfect environment for sleeping.
  • Relaxing your mind and body in preparation for sleep.
  • Limiting artificial stimulants.
  • Developing good sleeping habits.
  • Making sure you are using the best mattress for your back pain.
  • Challenging your negative thinking around sleep and pain.

So I hope that you have found some things you can take on and add to your lifestyle that will help you to overcome your sleeping difficulties.

After all we all deserve a good night’s sleep.

Let me know how you get on in the comments box below.​

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Daniel

I'm a Painter and Decorator, psychology graduate, and veteran of 5 spinal surgeries. I want to help my fellow construction workers to fight back against persistent back pain like I have.

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