Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

Over half of adults over the age of 60 experience chronic pain. Chronic pain is defined as any pain lasting longer than 3 months and is a very different experience for your brain than acute pain.

And unfortunately, chronic pain can have lasting implications on brain health in older adults, even increasing the risk of developing dementia.

One of the most common problems we hear from our clients living with chronic pain is how their sleep suffers. Chronic pain creates a vicious cycle of disrupted sleep in which lack of sleep causes heightened sensitivity to pain. Increased pain will impair your ability to sleep, and the cycle continues.

Disrupted sleep is yet another risk factor for dementia, so it’s critical to address lack of sleep if you are living with chronic pain. Sleep is also necessary for your body’s ability to heal and recover from the pain you’re experiencing.

There are many reasons why you might not be sleeping well from struggling with falling asleep in the first place to waking up too frequently throughout the night.

If you are struggling to sleep you’ve come to the right place!

First Some Information About Sleep…

Good quality sleep is a basic human need that tends to be overlooked in the discussion on health and wellness. When is the last time you talked to your medical provider about a new health problem you are experiencing and they asked about your sleep?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 19% of adults in the US report not getting enough rest or sleep! This is a huge number of people, so as far as lifestyle changes to improve your health this is the lowest hanging fruit.

While our primary goal as therapists is to teach our patients how to move better, we can’t make meaningful progress without the foundations of good health in place. Improving your sleep is an essential first step toward better health whether you have chronic health conditions or not.

What is Sleep Deprivation?

As we mentioned above, there might be more than one reason you aren’t getting the sleep you need to feel your best. Any combination of these reasons can lead to sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation occurs when you either don’t get enough sleep total, sleep at the wrong time of day, or don’t get good quality sleep. Adults who experience sleep deprivation may report not feeling refreshed when they wake up and feeling tired throughout the day.

The negative effects of sleep deprivation are detrimental throughout your day from start to finish! As stated above, lack of sleep can impair brain and physical function, leads to loss of productivity and has even been linked to early risk of death. Sleep deficiency is associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and depression. Starting to get the picture on why sleep is so important?

Now that you understand the WHY, let’s talk about where to start to get your best night’s sleep on a regular basis!

Your Ideal Sleep Environment

Everyone has what we call an ideal sleep environment. This means that your space is set up to facilitate better rest and that both your nightly and morning routines set you up for success.

Step 1: Create Your Ideal Night Routine

Establishing a pre-bedtime routine is the most important component of a good night’s rest. Going through the same motions before you go to bed every night will let your body know that it is time to rest. Create a routine that promotes rest and relaxation close to your chosen bedtime.

Start by spending just a few minutes preparing for the following day to help your morning run smooth. This step will allow you some peace of mind knowing you are prepared for the following day so you are not thinking about it during the night.

The next step is focusing on a routine that tells your body and mind to relax. A light stretching routine before bed might help to relax you, but avoid a vigorous workout that might keep you awake.

Also, avoid watching TV or looking at a phone within 30 minutes to an hour of going to bed as the light from the screen can alter your circadian rhythm. Avoid keeping any screens in the bedroom that may tempt you before bed or during the night. Instead, try meditation or journaling prior to bed (I highly recommend a guided app like Headspace).

Set a schedule to go to bed at the same time every night and stick to it, that way your internal clock will set itself. The first few days of this might be difficult, but don’t give up too soon! This might take some adjustment over a few weeks to find your ideal time to go to sleep.

And finally, create an environment that is a comfortable temperature with soft lighting to let your body and mind calm down for the day.

Step 2: Improving the Quality of Your Sleep

Experts can’t seem to agree on the ideal amount of sleep for everyone. Some will say at least 7 or 8 hours while others might do fine with 6 hours. It may take some trial and error, but you’ll figure out the right amount of sleep to wake up feeling refreshed.

Make sure your bedroom is dark and quiet enough to promote rest. Again, keep your room at a comfortable temperature for you. If you find yourself waking up throughout the night and having trouble falling back to sleep, avoid watching TV or scrolling through your phone. Don’t focus on the time or stress yourself out over not getting enough sleep. Try focusing on your breathing until you fall asleep again.

Step 3: Create Your Ideal Morning Routine

Believe it or not what you do with the first few hours of your day impacts your sleep the following night. Try setting a usual wake up time and stick to it every day, just like you stick to your bedtime.

It’s easier to wake up feeling refreshed if you have something to look forward to in the morning. Create rituals that make you look forward to your day and wake up early enough so you are not rushed. Enjoy a cup of coffee or tea while you read a book, meditate, or journal.

Try moving in some way in the morning, whether it’s a short stretching or strengthening routine or a walk. Spend a few extra minutes thinking about what the rest of your day will look like before you really have to start.

Start your day off right with a breakfast of whole foods and avoid starting the day with quick, processed food options full of sugar that will lead to an energy crash later.

The good news is there are many treatment options when it comes to living well with chronic pain. And sleep is a great place to start! Creating better sleep habits takes time, patience, and a sense of awareness. Remind yourself you don’t have to get everything right the first time and make small changes until you start to see the results you want! Daily practice leads to healthier habits over time. How can you improve your sleep today?