How Muscles and Pain Affect Sleep

Posted by Tyler Britton on Apr 23, 2020 8:00:00 AM

Muscle pain and sleep

Pain is all too common in our world today, and it greatly impacts our quality and quantity of sleep. Chronic pain can really hinder your ability to get a good night’s sleep, which makes it harder to heal, and creates all sorts of complications. Here is a quick overview of how muscles and pain interact with sleep, and some tips for how to improve your sleep, even in the presence of pain.

How Pain Affects Sleep

Pain is also a common cause of insomnia - just consider the following statistics about pain and sleep [2015 Sleep in AmericaTM Poll]:

  • People with chronic pain had an average nightly sleep debt of 42 minutes (i.e. getting 42 minutes less sleep than they should)
  • People with acute pain in the last week had an average sleep debt of 14 minutes
  • 37 percent of people with chronic pain in the last week reported good or very good sleep quality, versus 65% who didn’t have pain
  • 23 percent of people with chronic pain reported being diagnosed with a sleep disorder by a doctor, compared to just 6 percent of pain free people. It’s quite a sobering statistic

Yoga has effectively been used to treat chronic and acute pain in various situations. Yoga focuses on challenging the body with postures that improve skeletal and muscular alignment, and improves flexibility.

sleep-deprivation infographic

What Muscles Do In Response to Chronic Pain

With chronic pain, the body begins to perform a muscular function called “guarding”. You know this sensation in the case of a flinch, when you think something is going to hit your or harm you, you reflexively tense-up in that area. The important word here is reflex.

Reflexes work on a different level of neurology than other functions. Many reflexes don’t happen in the conscious portions of our brains, but rather, occur as a circuit of neurons in a localized area from the spinal cord and out to the muscle. This is important to know moving forward for how pain can go from acute and temporary, to chronic, and really interrupt sleep in the process.

Chronic Muscle Tension and Sleep

It’s all too common to hear this phrase in day-to-day life. The truth is that this phrase is more accurate than people realize. A perfect example is in the shoulder and neck muscles. For many individuals, stress expresses itself in tightness in the upper trapezius muscles – the muscles at the top of our shoulders and leading to our neck.

When we have low-level stressors in our lives, or have an ongoing injury in a particular area, our muscles respond with this guarding reflex. It’s not as exaggerated as when we flinch, but it can be easily observed in people that are highly stressed – their muscles likely express this tension as well.

Over time, this tension can become problematic causing:

  • improper posture
  • muscle fatigue
  • increased stress-perception
  • trigger-points or stress-points in the muscle
  • increased cortisol
  • irratibility
  • increased injury

When the muscles have a low-level tension and low-level guarding, it causes a domino effect for the body, where the body is sending signals of stress and discomfort. Many times, people don’t even realize they are stressed.

Exercises to Relax Muscle Tension

Some easy exercises to combat this body-tension is to remind yourself and others to:

  • lower your shoulders
  • not press your tongue to the roof of your mouth
  • un-furrow your forehead
  • relax your eyes
  • straighten your spine

Even in just reading this, you probably found yourself doing one or more of these. That’s okay. Just keep these in mind while you are going throughout your day, and relax them when possible.

Body Scan Before Sleep

One meditative technique that is universally useful is called a “body scan”. In this exercise, the individual brings attention to each portion of the body, starting at the top of the skull and working slowly down all the way to the bottom of the feet. When each body part comes into awareness, the individual intentionally releases all tension in this area.

If you haven’t tried this, you are missing out. It is an easy way to calm the mind, relax the body, and break yourself out of those sub-conscious muscle guarding patterns that have been hanging around, potentially giving you more pain than you want.

Try doing a self-administered body scan before bed. If you are tired, or have had increased resting tension in your body, there’s a good chance you will fall asleep before you get to your feet!

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Topics: Pain and Sleep

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