Back Aching? A Neurologist’s Advice for Managing Pain During Sleep

For those of us who experience chronic pain, daytime aches are only compounded at night, when insomnia and a host of other sleep issues often derail any hopes of shut-eye. Fortunately, according to a neurologist and sleep health expert, there are several tactics to manage those back pains and stiff necks and, yes, even get some much-needed sleep in the process.


Pain, no matter the cause, can be a real nuisance when it comes to sleep. At night, our bodies and minds should be in a relaxed state to allow sleep to gently take over. But when you’re suffering from pain, that can feel nearly impossible. In fact, according to a study investigating chronic pain and sleep quality, approximately two-thirds of individuals suffering from chronic pain reported serious sleep disturbances.

How Pain Interrupts Your Sleep Cycles

Pain is one of the most common sleep disruptors, often making it difficult to fall and stay asleep. Consider this: When we sleep, our brains move through cycles in which we fluctuate between deep and light sleep. Every 90 minutes, adults experience a complete cycle of light sleep, transition into a cycle of deep sleep, and then return to light sleep. But if there’s something like pain disrupting your sleep, it can prevent you from reaching that crucial deep stage. Consequently, you awake multiple times throughout the night, and you’re robbed of the restorative sleep you so desperately need.

In addition, pain can also trigger what we call “microarousals,” or brief awakenings, as you sleep. During these interruptions, your brain wakes up for just a few seconds before returning to sleep—often without you recalling the disturbance in the morning. This pattern can slowly sap the refreshing nature of your sleep, leaving you tired and irritable the following day. Even worse, sleeping poorly may change your brain’s chemistry and increase your body’s inflammation, in turn exacerbating your chronic pain.

4 Tactics to Help Curb Pain During Sleep

If pain leaves you tossing and turning most nights, it’s worth considering the following suggestions:

1. Try Changing Your Mattress and Pillows

Back pain and neck pain are two of the most common issues experienced during sleep. If you have chronic lower back pain at bedtime, a firmer mattress could help keep your back aligned. Memory foam pillows that conform to the shape of your neck and head can provide much-needed support for those suffering neck pain.

2. Check Your Sleep Position

For both neck and back pain, your sleeping position is also important. For example, sleeping in the fetal position (on your side with knees bent) with a pillow between your knees can relieve strain from your back. Sleeping on your back with a small pillow beneath your knees can have a similar effect on back pain. Neck aches keeping you awake? Avoid sleeping on your stomach, as that tends to cause additional strain; instead opt to sleep on your side or back.

3. Talk to Your Doctor About Your Pain Medications

Chronic pain sufferers are often prescribed strong pain medications, but some of these can negatively affect your sleep, exacerbating problems such as sleep apnea. The same is true when it comes to many common sleep aids. It’s important to consult with your doctor about the ways your medication may be affecting your sleep.

4. Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

The better you sleep at night, the less pain you’ll feel in the morning. So, before your head hits the pillow, remember all those pre-bedtime best practices we’ve heard for years: limit your exposure to bright lights; avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine; and make sure your sleep environment is quiet and comfortable.

Understanding—and Improving—the Sleep-Pain Cycle

Whatever the cause of your pain, know that your quality of sleep can also suffer. And when your sleep suffers, your pain can potentially worsen.

But the flip side of that cycle is much more hopeful: Optimizing your body’s rest can lead to a reduction in pain—during both waking and sleeping hours. That’s why it’s so important to talk with your doctor to develop a personalized pain/sleep plan.

With the proper precautions, the right mattress, optimal sleep hygiene and perhaps a test run of a new sleeping position, you can make your nights (and days) much less painful.

If you found this article helpful, consider sharing it on TwitterFacebookPinterest, or Instagram or emailing it to any van lifers who might benefit from a better night’s sleep. Sharing is caring!