Woman struggling with relationship between sleep and pain

When focusing on how to prevent insomnia, people often treat sleep symptoms rather than looking at underlying dynamics causing the problems. One important factor to consider is the relationship between sleep and pain. The SleepFoundation states that:

“Pain is a key factor in the gap between the amount of sleep Americans say they need and the amount they’re getting – an average 42 minute sleep debt for those with chronic pain and 14 minutes for those who’ve suffered from acute pain in the past week.”

Fourteen minutes, and even 42 minutes, might not seem like much. However, ask anyone who’s ever hit the snooze button and they will tell you that every moment of extra sleep counts. Put another way, 42 minutes a day adds up to almost 5 hours of lost sleep over the course of a week. Exhausting! This points to the importance of addressing pain conditions when looking at how to prevent insomnia and improve sleep.

Additionally, studies have shown that the relationship between sleep and pain moves in both directions. In other words, sleep problems make pain worse. Likewise, both daytime and nighttime pain increase the likelihood of insomnia and can disrupt sleep.

The Unconscious Mind Is A Key to the Relationship Between Sleep and Pain

Comprehensive research reviews of pain processing have stated the value of assessing and treating pain from a combination of physical (biological), psychological, and social perspectives. These factors also play into sleeping disorders.

The relationship between sleep and pain is complex. To figure out how to prevent insomnia that comes as a result of discomfort and how to improve pain and sleep at a foundational level consider the following:

  • Pain is experienced physically and relates to something happening in the body.
  • At the same, a person’s comfort level is personal and subjective. The amount of pain that someone has can only be described by the person feeling it. Pain is perceived and measured by each of us individually.
  • Pain has an emotional component. Past experiences impact a person’s current pain level and may factor into potential anxiety about future pain.
  • Chronic discomfort sometimes leads to depressive symptoms. Pain can also contribute to isolation when it limits otherwise normal activities or social engagements.

Functioning with discomfort takes a lot of energy. It can be distracting and frustrating. Chronic pain is exhausting. And fatigue causes pain. In a vicious cycle, increases in pain correlate with more difficulty sleeping. And poor sleep negatively impacts memory and cognitive functioning short-term and long-term.

Pay Attention Without Having to Pay the Price: 2 Ways to Improve Pain and Sleep

2019 study found that where we focus our attention influences our perception of pain. Because anxiety impacts our ability to concentrate, it figures into the equation too.

To break this down:

  1. We have some control over where we direct our conscious minds.
  2. Unconscious/underlying anxieties affect that conscious attention.
  3. The combination of those things makes up our perceptions and effects our experience of pain.

Additionally, anyone who has lain awake with spinning, worrying thoughts knows that anxiety contributes to insomnia. Going back to an earlier point, this is very problematic not just as a result of the issues of anxiety and insomnia themselves but also due to the reciprocal relationship between sleep and pain.

In multiple studies combined looking at 61,000 people in the general population, findings showed that lower quality and quantity of sleep doubled or tripled the risk of pain conditions and inflammation.

Hypnosis and self-hypnosis are effective at improving pain and sleep partly because both pain and sleep can be impacted by how we direct our attention in positive and negative ways. For example, hypnosis can induce anesthesia and other types of pain relief. Likewise, people can learn self-hypnosis or utilize other simple methods to sleep better naturally.

Option #1: Try this simple quasi-self-hypnosis strategy on your own.

At some point during the day, take 5 minutes to sit quietly.

  • Imagine yourself waking up in the morning, opening your eyes and feeling well rested, strong, and comfortable.
  • Visualize how the light looks with you feeling good and well rested.
  • Picture how your body will feel when you wash your face in the morning, with you feeling healthy and energetic.
  • Imagine the sound of your voice as you tell someone how relieved you are to be so improved.
  • In your minds eye, taste your favorite food with the added joy of feeling well.

I recommend doing this during the day. You can additionally add in other desirable goals like visualizing yourself getting into bed, easily getting comfortable and falling deeply to sleep. As you direct your conscious attention towards what you wish to experience, the unconscious will become more primed for that to manifest.

Option #2: A Well Researched, Non-Invasive Device That Helps Pain and Sleep

Unconsciously modulated factors may be key components in the relationship between sleep and pain. As a result, targeting mechanisms under the surface can be very effective.

The experiences of comfort vs. pain and good quality sleep vs. sleeping disorders can be measured on brain scans. This has led researchers to look at how activating certain brain waves can improve sleep and pain.

Depending on our experiences, our brains naturally create different frequencies. These can be measured as alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and theta.

Beginning in the 1970’s, scientists started looking at how they could direct those various frequencies into targeted areas of the body to promote healing. The method of doing this, which has been shown over time to be safe and effective, is Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (PEMF).

Omnipemf, one of the leaders in the field of wearable PEMF devices, concisely summarizes the different frequencies that need to get activated to improve pain and sleep as well as assorted other conditions. They explain how a PEMF device, “emits corresponding dominant and accompanying frequencies to which the brain synchronizes, creating a perfect mental environment for the desired state of mind.”

systematic review of randomized controlled trials looking at PEMF therapy in the treatment of low back pain demonstrated significant benefits and reduction of symptoms. Similarly, one study comparing patients using PEMF to a placebo group found improvements with insomnia in 70% of the PEMF participants vs. only 2% in the placebo group.

In short, there are interventions that can improve sleep and pain simultaneously. The drain of chronic discomfort and the exhaustion of sleeping disorders can be a vicious cycle. When feeling worn down, it’s nice to know that there are easy self-care strategies that require very little energy output while providing great relief.

Article previously appeared on drdyan.com on December 17, 2020

Featured image by Microgen for adobe


  • Dyan Haspel-Johnson, Ph.D., S.E.P.®

    Psychologist & Hypnosis Expert

    Thrive Global

    Dr. Dyan Haspel-Johnson runs a private psychological and hypnotherapy practice with a specialty in hypnosis for sleep and other mind-body-spirit modalities. After receiving her BFA from Rhode Island School of Design, Dr. Dyan earned her Ph.D. in psychology while working in a physician's holistic medical practice. Her creative and science based backgrounds inspire Dr. Dyan's unique way of thinking about healing. Her approach led her to become the Vice President of Continuing Education Programs for the Southern California Society for Clinical Hypnosis, and then to become President of that organization while also teaching at UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry and lecturing at many other institutions. Dr. Dyan's expertise with sleep, and the demand in her practice to help people to sleep better motivated Dr. Dyan to make the complimentary, downloadable eBook and video, "The 3 Biggest Things That Cause Sleep Problems & The ONE Thing You Can Do by 3pm Today to Sleep Better." She has also created the Deep & Easy Sleep Self-Hypnosis Package, available through her website.