Everyone experiences aches and pain from time to time. Pain is stressful and exhausting and we know that stress makes pain worse. There is a complex relationship with pain and sleep. Poor sleep can affect levels of pain and chronic pain can disrupt sleep. Good quality sleep alone may not cure your pain, but it can help you to improve things significantly.

Acute and Chronic Pain

When there is a trauma to the body or a sudden pain, this usually alerts you to the pain in order to prevent further injury. This acute type of pain normally subsides and becomes less painful. However, chronic pain is quite different to this normal type of pain. Chronic pain is often a dull, aching or throbbing pain that is ongoing over weeks or months. Chronic pain is defined as intermittent or continuous pain for at least 3 months. This can leave you feeling very limited in what you can do, difficulties doing the simplest of tasks and it can be emotionally draining.

Chronic pain usually involves high levels of inflammation in the body or nerve damage or both. Taking care of your body by eating well and exercising regularly can help but one of the most overlooked activities in managing pain is good quality sleep.

The most common types of chronic pain are:

  • Arthritic Pain
  • Back Pain
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Neuropathic Pain
  • Headaches/Migraine

We know that our immune system is impeded when we don’t get enough quality sleep. Our immune system is responsible for detoxifying our body and clearing inflammation. If this process is not working optimally, we are subjected to diseases and pain. People with sleep problems have more instances of inflammation and abnormal immune function.

Hormones and Pain

Our hormones have an important role in our circadian cycle and quality sleep enables them to work optimally by replenishing them, giving us energy, stronger immunity, coping abilities and better mood. Also according to WebMd, lack of sleep can actually trigger headaches and migraines due to an imbalance of serotonin and dopamine, our feel good hormones. When we are feeling happy, we are focused on positive things and are distracted from pain. This is when we have higher levels of our feel good hormones in our system. Serotonin is also a pre-cursor to melatonin which is our sleep hormone. When we are feeling low, it is difficult to get to sleep and so it causes a vicious cycle.

Our growth hormone is released into the bloodstream when we are in a deep phase of sleep. This is our healing and repairing hormone, vital for tissue repair and therefore reducing pain.

How Attitude Contributes to Pain

Pain levels are affected by our attitude to pain and how we are feeling or what our mood is like. While physical sensitivity through the sensory nerves can have a painful stimulus to heat, cold, electrical and pressure, there can also be an emotional sensitivity response. How we think about pain can have a significant effect on how we feel and what we do about it. A positive attitude towards pain management is a very strong coping and proactive mechanism. This is what we are paying attention to and we are not conscious or as aware of anything else that’s negative, including pain. Whatever we focus our attention on; it becomes amplified, whether it is positive or negative.

Good quality sleep is crucial for healing and repair and therefore reducing pain. When you have a good attitude toward sleep, it is then valued. When you value something it is then important and it matters to you and you will pay attention to all it’s benefits.

Stress and Anxiety Increases Pain

Pain causes increased levels of stress in the body physically, emotionally and hormonally. This increases our stress steroid hormones adrenaline and cortisol which then makes it more difficult to sleep.

Pain can also come with anxiety about the pain itself and constant worry which can have an affect with cognition and behaviour. Chronic pain can have an affect of different aspects of life namely general activity, mood, work and relationships.

Pain and over stimulation of the central nervous system, can have a negative impact of the sleep-wake cycle. Furthermore, it can reduce the healing and restorative functions of deep sleep. As a result of sleep disturbances, tolerance and resilience levels are reduced leading to higher risk of mood disorders like depression and anxiety.

Reducing and managing stress by becoming aware of how you are feeling emotionally, how you are reacting to things, how your body feels and if you need to rest. Managing stress will enable you to have a better night’s sleep and therefore facilitating your body to carry out all the healing and repairing and building a strong immune system.

The Pain Pathway

Pain travels to the brain in different ways and depending on the pathways taken, can have a significant affect on how we feel and experience pain. In addition, the association or situation to what caused the pain can also have a contributory factor and influenced by the release of endorphins.

Pain gateways or nerve gateways can be influenced by the brains signals, which may increase pain or reduce it. What we are doing physically or the state of our physical body, our thoughts and how we feel all contribute to how pain is perceived by the brain. So if we have no distractions, this causes us to focus on our pain and experience emotions like anger and frustration, all of which amplify pain.

A ‘fast’ pain message or acute pain is relayed by the spinal cord via A-delta fibre nerves, to the thalamus and cerebral cortex where a fast decision and immediate action is taken.

In contrast, chronic pain tends to move along the same pathway but at a slower pace (C-fibre nerves). Slow pain tends to be dull and aching. However, when they reach the brain they are relayed by the spinal cord to the hypothalamus and limbic system (our emotional centre). The hypothalamus will release some stress hormones in response. This is why chronic pain can be associated with stress, anxiety and depression.


Chronic pain can have a huge impact on quality of life and relationships. Try something that will help you to relax and distract you from pain. This will help you feel calmer and have more tolerance towards yourself and also importantly to others. Understand the importance of sleep and the beneficial healing and restorative functions that can help to reduce chronic pain significantly.

If you liked this article and would like to know more, please visit ‘How To Get A Good Night’s Sleep’ website.