It’s easy to underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep, until you’re denied it. Unfortunately, for many people who live with pain from osteoarthritis, sleeping well can be difficult. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting an estimated 26.9 million people in the United States, and it’s usually the result of years of natural wear and tear on the joints. Symptoms of osteoarthritis can include swelling, stiffness, and tenderness around the affected joints, but the most notable symptom for most people is pain.
Research on osteoarthritis and sleep issues
Several studies have noted the relationship between osteoarthritis pain and sleep disturbances.
First and foremost, there’s the obvious way that osteoarthritis pain can interfere with sleep: when a part of the body hurts, it’s harder to sleep. For instance, a sore hip can force someone to alternate sides every few hours to avoid extreme pain, or osteoarthritis in the spine can make it impossible to sleep on the back.
Aside from the simple difficulty of sleeping while in pain, there may be a deeper connection. A lack of sleep might trigger an increase in painful inflammation, as well as increase an individual’s perception of pain. An article at Reuters.com delves into this more deeply, stating:
“Researchers found that people with knee osteoarthritis and insomnia were also more likely to suffer from a nervous system disorder called ‘central sensitization’ that makes them more sensitive to pain and lowers their threshold for tolerating discomfort.”
This means that while pain can interfere with sleep, a lack of sleep can exacerbate pain – further interfering with sleep patterns. Additionally, the risk of depression both increases and is increased by sleep deprivation and chronic pain. One study even confirmed that depression, pain, and sleep disturbances form a vicious cycle for people with osteoarthritis, with each condition worsening the others.
However, just as sleep problems and osteoarthritis pain can each worsen the other, the reverse is also true. Improving one will also improve the other.
The connection between better-quality sleep and pain reduction has also been established.
Research published by the American Pain Society confirmed that the severity of sleep deprivation is associated with altered pain perception. In other words, the worse a person’s sleep issues are, the more he or she might experience pain.
This same research also noted that better sleep could lead to less pain. With a few good nights’ rest, the cycle between osteoarthritis pain and sleep trouble could be flipped around. Better sleep could lead to less pain, which could, in turn, lead to better sleep. It’s worth noting, however, that this particular study suggested that improved sleep could lessen pain. Therefore, simply focusing on lessening pain might not be enough to make an impact; sleep problems should be addressed just as deliberately as osteoarthritis symptoms.
Reducing sleep issues with osteoarthritis
There are multiple ways for people with osteoarthritis to reduce the likelihood of sleep issues.
One way to reduce the risk of sleep problems is to address osteoarthritis pain. Working with a pain specialist could help with osteoarthritis discomfort and sleep issues. Asking a physician or pain specialist about medications could be beneficial, but there are also several drug-free interventions that might make a big difference. Complementary and alternative treatments can reduce pain, as well as reduce stress and make it easier to sleep. Examples of complementary and alternative treatments include:
- Chiropractic adjustment
- Movement meditation practices (like yoga)
One study also found that talk therapy can be a very effective treatment for osteoarthritis pain. Mindfulness-based talk therapy, or talk therapy that focuses on acknowledging current feelings, has shown potential as a way to alter the brain’s responses to pain perception.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is another form of talk therapy that focuses on learning to change the way you think in order to change the way you act and respond. Research has shown that not only can cognitive behavioral therapy help reduce pain, but it can also improve sleep quality. There are different types of cognitive behavioral therapy, so it’s possible to undergo therapy for either pain or for sleep issues (or both). Specialized cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia might be particularly beneficial to individuals with osteoarthritis pain who have trouble sleeping.
These same types of therapies – mindfulness talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and many complementary and alternative treatments – can also help treat depression. Since depression is another facet of the vicious cycle mentioned above, along with sleep issues and osteoarthritis pain, pursing therapy could help break that cycle in another way. It’s easy to know if you have pain or sleep problems, but knowing whether or not you have depression can be difficult. If you wonder at all if your osteoarthritis pain and sleep issues are accompanied by depression, discuss the possibility with your physician.
Cultivating good sleeping habits
Good general sleep habits can also help with sleep problems.
A few simple changes really can make it much easier to get a good night’s sleep. Avoid daytime naps and caffeine (especially from late afternoon on). Spend an hour or so before bed doing something that doesn’t involve an electronic screen, since screens (like TVs, computers, or tablets) can stimulate the brain. Also make sure that your bedroom is for sleeping. Clear out the clutter, dim the lights, and keep the bedroom a sanctuary for sleep – not a place for doing late-night paperwork or binge-watching TV shows.
Remember that pain control and sleep are important. If your osteoarthritis pain isn’t controlled well, or if you’re having difficulty sleeping, talk to your physician about it. Discuss both short-term and long-term ways to address your issues, such as medications for short-term help or cognitive behavioral therapy for long-term help.
Does your osteoarthritis pain interfere with your sleep?
Image by Alex via Flickr