When Your Sleep Schedule Is Off For Any Reason, You Feel More Pain
When we change our clocks in the spring and fall, or even if we know we will be out late a few nights in a row, it is possible to take steps to manage your sleep and your pain.
This may surprise you, but it is actually possible for a time or schedule change to trigger problems with pain. How? By depriving you of sleep. A time shift – especially the spring time change – presents an easy time to lose sleep—and with sleep loss often comes an uptick in pain. Sleep and pain are deeply connected and can powerfully influence each other. Poor and insufficient sleep can lower pain thresholds, increase inflammation, and slow the healing process. Pain, in turn, can make falling asleep and staying asleep more difficult. Both the physical discomfort of pain and the anxiety that often accompanies pain at bedtime pose real challenges for restful sleep. Left untreated, disrupted pain and poor sleep can both escalate, in what can become a mentally and physically debilitating cycle.
As an example, the beginning of Daylight Savings Time in March means we turn our clocks ahead, and we lose an hour from our 24-hour day. Because the time change officially occurs at 2 a.m., that hour lost is, for most of us, an hour of lost sleep. A single hour may not seem like a lot to lose, but even that modest amount of sleep loss can result in sleep deprivation, which in turn can worsen pain. I am often asked if gaining an hour of sleep in the fall could have a detrimental effect on sleep. The answer is no, but what I can tell you is that most people stay up later on that night, thinking they have an extra hour of wakefulness, not an extra hour of sleep. Also many people will wake up an hour early that next morning, and go in and out of broken early morning sleep, getting frustrated.
One reason that a single hour of lost sleep can cause such problems? A great many of us are already sleep deprived and regularly going without sufficient amounts of high-quality sleep, the kind of sleep that keeps us healthy, rested, and energized and can help keep pain at bay. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has called insufficient sleep a problem of epidemic proportions, and a recent national survey found that more than one-third of U.S. adults are sleeping less than 7 hours a night. With so many of us shouldering an ongoing sleep-debt—that’s the difference between the amount of sleep you need and the amount you’re actually getting—an additional hour of sleep loss can have a significant impact.
The effects of Daylight Savings in either direction on sleep go beyond that single lost or gained hour. The time change forces our bodies’ sleep-wake rhythms to adjust to a different 24-hour cycle, a process that can lead to disrupted and lost sleep over several days. Our sleep-wake cycles are finely tuned and sensitive to even very small changes. The shift of an hour is more than enough of a change to throw your body’s sleep-wake cycle out of sync, setting you up for multiple nights of less-than-ideal sleep.
There are steps you can take to minimize the sleep disruption associated with any reason for time change:
Prior to a known time change, gradually taper bedtime backward or forward. As an example, a few nights ahead of the time change, begin to dial back your bedtime in 15-minute increments. You’re giving yourself a little extra sleep ahead of the time shift, as well as preparing to recover that otherwise lost hour on Saturday night.
Avoid stimulants. Keep your caffeine consumption to a minimum during the days leading up to the time change. Confining your caffeine intake to the morning hours will help you more easily adjust your bedtime at night. Avoid alcohol during this period as well. You may think it’s helping your sleep—in fact, it’s doing just the opposite.
Get daily exercise. Exercise provides a terrific boost to sleep, and helps reinforce sleep-wake cycles. Exercising daily leading up to the time change can make you feel more ready for those earlier bedtimes, and help you sleep more soundly throughout the night.
Soak up morning sun. On Sunday after the clocks have turned forward, make sure to get some exposure to morning light. Early-in-the-day light exposure can reinforce the body’s adjustment to its new sleep-wake cycle. You can use this trick if you travel time zones as well.
Remember, these steps are an investment not only in your sleep, but also in protection against the aggravation of pain that can result from sleeping poorly and not sleeping enough.
If you are dealing with pain issues during a time change—or if changes to your sleep schedule exacerbate a pain problem—it’s important to tend to your pain as well as to your sleep. A non-prescription pain medication that also aids sleep can help ease your body of discomfort and allow you to rest soundly. Treating any pain-sleep issues promptly as they arise can help avoid the frustrating cycle of sleep loss and pain escalation that so often can occur.
Prior to the spring Daylight Savings Time change, or whenever sleep is more likely to be disrupted and shortened, taking care of yourself—your sleep and your pain—is especially important.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™