Assessing problems with sleep & persistent pain


Problems with sleep affect most of us from time to time. We know we might find it difficult to get off to sleep because of a busy mind, a different bedroom, changes to our schedule – but for most of us, sleep returns to our normal fairly quickly. For some of us, though, sleep problems continue for weeks, months or even years. And for people living with persistent pain, sleep can be one of the most difficult things to deal with, yet it’s also one of the most common (McCracken & Iverson, 2002). Studies of sleep problems in people with fibromyalgia show abnormal sleep continuity as well as changes in sleep architecture – this looks like increased number of times waking, a reduced amount of slow wave sleep and an abnormal alpha wave intrusion in non rapid eye movement, termed alpha-delta sleep (Dauvilliers & Touchon, 2001). People with fibromyalgia may also experience primary sleep disorder such as sleep apnoea or periodic leg movements during sleep.

The effect of rotten sleep is quite clear: pain increases the day following a disrupted night’s sleep, while high levels of pain on one day has less of an impact on subsequent sleep – but if you’ve been sleeping poorly for a while, all of this becomes something of a blur (Johnson, Weber, McCrae & Craggs, 2017; Slavish, Graham-Engeland, Martire & Smyth, 2017)! When we add in the effects of poor sleep on daily activity, and begin to unpack the relationships between sleep, pain and mood (Goerlitz, Sturgeron, Mackey & Darnell, 2017) well it’s a bit of a complicated matter, and one that I think we need to address when someone comes in for help with their pain.

Assessing unrefreshing sleep or poor sleep can be a reasonably straightforward process, but it needs to be carried out systematically. The event/s that initiate poor sleep may be very different from the events that maintain poor sleep, and while it’s interesting to know what started the sleep difficulties – in the end it’s possibly more important to work out what’s maintaining it.

The following is my attempt to outline what I look for when I’m discussing sleep with someone.

1. Is sleep really a problem? Sounds a bit odd, but some people have a strong belief that they need a certain number of hours of sleep a night, and when they’re not getting that magical number, it can be quite worrying – and actually kick off a sleep problem!

  • My key question here is do you wake feeling like you’ve had a good sleep? The number of hours of sleep is irrelevant, to a large extent, if you wake up feeling refreshed. If the person I’m talking to wakes up feeling OK I quickly swing into trying to understand why they’re worried about their sleep – and reassuring them that having a certain sleep duration is not fixed. In fact, sleep length changes over time – remember when you were a kid and slept for hours and hours? And when you were a teen and sleep in until midday if you could, but stayed up most of the night? These are pretty normal changes in pattern and nothing to worry about.

If you don’t feel refreshed, then I dig a little deeper…

2. What’s your sleep routine? This is about finding out the time someone goes to bed, how long it takes to fall asleep, what time a person wakes up, and gets up. I’ll also ask about the pre-bedtime routine: what’s the evening routine like? when do the screens go off? what’s the last drink of the evening? what’s the bedroom environment like?

  • I’m looking for a consistent bedtime at around the same time each night, a “wind down” ritual where the same things happen each night to prime the mind for sleep. I’m also looking for factors that might make it more difficult to fall asleep once in bed – screen time (devices, laptops, TV), dealing with worries, solving problems, having arguments, difficulty getting comfortable.
  • I’m also looking for a consistent wake up time, and whether the person gets out of bed then – or lies in bed and maybe falls asleep again…
  • A comfortable room temperature, a dark room, relatively little noise: all of these very basic things help keep bed for sleep (and sex) but not for much else.

The reason these basic “sleep hygiene” factors help is that our sleep pattern is malleable. It changes depending on environmental factors like light, noise and temperature. This is why we end up having jetlag – it takes a little while to adjust to the new daily light patterns (especially when you travel from Christchurch, NZ to somewhere like Norway!). Our body temperature drops during the night, our digestive processes slow down (that’s why we tend not to do “number twos” at night) and why we pee a lot less at night than during the day. Setting up a consistent routine helps us retain these habits and “teach” the mind/body to sleep at the correct time.

3. What substances do you use? I’m interested in the usual suspects: caffeine (not only coffee, but tea, energy drinks, dark chocolate), but also alcohol, the timing of medications, and that late night snack.

  • When sleep onset is a bit fragile it’s probably best not to have coffee and allied substances after mid-afternoon, and for some people (like me!) it’s best not to have them after lunch.
  • Medications for persistent pain are often sedating, so people need to know how to use this side effect for the best – and that often means taking medications earlier than first thought.
  • It also means for us, recognising that some medications alter sleep architecture (particularly meds given for, paradoxically, insomnia!). Alcohol might help people get to sleep but it changes the sleep architecture, preventing you from falling into that deepest sleep phase – and waking you up to pee halfway through the night, if you don’t do that already!
  • I also check whether people are smokers, and if they are, whether they wake in the morning absolutely gasping for a smoke, or whether they smoke during the night. Nicotine withdrawal can keep someone awake during those brief periods before and after dreaming sleep, so may need to be managed with patches.
  • Food is also something I check – snacks at midnight are the stuff of school stories, but can become a learned behaviour that we associate with being awake at that time, and maintain disrupted sleep. Maybe a mid-evening protein-based snack is a better option.

4. What’s going through your mind (or what’s your mind telling you) about your sleep? Having hopefully dealt with the basics of sleep hygiene (though I haven’t included exercise yet – that’s coming!), I’m keen to understand the person’s mind chatter about their sleep.

  • Worries, rumination and attempts at problem-solving (yes I’ve solved the problem of world peace!) can all keep us from falling asleep. What we do about those thoughts depends on the sleep management approach we’re using.
  • Often, the worries are actually worries about not sleeping – that paradoxically keep us from falling asleep! Feeling bothered about “how am I going to cope tomorrow if I don’t sleep”, or “I’m going to be so tired tomorrow, I know I won’t manage” are really common.
  • Along with worries about not sleeping, every other unsolved problem seems to pop up courtesy of your mind – this can happen because the person is too busy during the day to stop and ponder (and it’s quiet at night… fewer distractions!) so it’s worth finding out what is going through the person’s mind and dealing with those issues.

5. What’s your pattern of sleeping through the night? This is about the pattern of arousals – when, how long for, what the person does during these times.

  • Some understanding of normal sleep architecture is useful here so you can help the person understand why waking just before/just after dreams occurs.
  • Reviewing the habits at these times helps to understand the factors that maintains being awake at the wrong times! Waking briefly but without being aware of it is normal, but when internal or external factors intrude during lighter periods of sleep, we become more aware of being awake and can begin to do things that keep us awake, like watching TV, turning the radio on, having a snack, worrying.

To be continued…

These are some of the very fundamentals of assessing sleep problems. Next week I’ll review some more – and the week after look at strategies that can help!

 

Dauvilliers, Y., & Touchon, J. (2001). Le sommeil du fibromyalgique : Revue des données cliniques et polygraphiques (sleep in fibromyalgia patients: Clinical and polysomnography pattern.). Neurophysiologie Clinique/Clinical Neurophysiology, 31(1), 18-33. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0987-7053(00)00240-9

Goerlitz, D., Sturgeron, J., Mackey, S., & Darnall, B. (2017). (395) sleep quality and positive affect as mediators of daily relationship between pain intensity and physical activity. The Journal of Pain, 18(4), S73.

Johnson, M., Weber, J., McCrae, C., & Craggs, J. (2017). (397) the catch 22 of insomnia and chronic pain: Exploring how insomnia and sleep impact the neural correlates of chronic pain. The Journal of Pain, 18(4), S73-S74.

McCracken, L. M., & Iverson, G. L. (2002). Disrupted sleep patterns and daily functioning in patients with chronic pain. Pain Research & Management, 7(2), 75-79.

Slavish, D., Graham-Engeland, J., Martire, L., & Smyth, J. (2017). (394) bidirectional associations between daily pain, affect, and sleep quality in young adults with and without chronic back pain. The Journal of Pain, 18(4), S73.

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8 comments

  1. Another great article, Bronnie! It’s a piece of the puzzle I wish clinicians would spend more time on. I see a lot of issues with increased pain related to sleep deprivation in younger generations as well as the elderlies. Another interesting factor is increased pain due to fatigue caused by constant screen time. The visual system is constantly drained from staring at a screen, postural controls cannot be maintained, and the mind is always stimulated which results in higher pain levels and fatigue. Thank you for your post!

  2. Good article. I don’t take any stimulants after 2pm. I have chronic pain from failed surgery in my groin and back. Sleep deprived, affected by medications. I cannot remember the last time I have had restorative sleep. I turn I am awake, the pain gets so bad that I vomit trying to get out of bed. As for stress trying to survive. I would say I am close to the end of my tether and would prefer a permanent sleep and not living on a daily hell

  3. Hi Bronnie
    I heard a psychologist I respect recently report that some new research suggested consistent going to bed time was less important than going to bed when ready to fall asleep – that going to bed while wide awake was not helpful. I think this fits with what you are stating.
    I don’t have research evidence, but a lot of my patients listen to a brief body scan (6-7 minutes) or practice it themselves when they get into bed as part of a ritual that helps with sleep (likely because being present takes out out of future predictions and past ruminations, so maybe more of a parasymp or hippocampus bias than symp or amygdala).
    Many also report that involvement in mindful movement or in meditation during the day helps to sleep better at night.

    this is a great article you wrote – and i should mention that a group I am mentoring in pain science and pain management just completed a review of your 2018 blog posts (homework I gave them), and all found them extremely helpful and informative

    1. You’re so mean to the group members!! I’d love to find out what they thought…
      When I get to the “treatment” post/s I’ll refer to the difference between tiredness and sleepiness – because that’s one of the things that people get confused about. I also ask people to carry out a mindfulness exercise for exactly the reasons you give, being in the present and mindfully and compassionately aware of the breath is one way to learn to fall asleep naturally and without the need to control. More coming soon!

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