Negative Thoughts About Sleep Make Pain Worse

By Pat Anson, Editor

Negative thoughts about pain and not being able to sleep can worsen chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia, arthritis and back pain, according to British researchers.

“Pain-related sleep beliefs appear to be an integral part of chronic pain patients' insomnia experience,” said Nicole Tang, a psychologist in the Sleep and Pain Laboratory at the University of Warwick. "Thoughts can have a direct and/or indirect impact on our emotion, behaviour and even physiology. The way how we think about sleep and its interaction with pain can influence the way how we cope with pain and manage sleeplessness.”

Tang and her colleagues developed a scale to measure beliefs about sleep and pain in chronic pain patients, along with the quality of their sleep.

The scale was tested on four groups of patients suffering from long-term pain and bad sleeping patterns, and found to be a reliable predictor of future pain and insomnia.

"This scale provides a useful clinical tool to assess and monitor treatment progress during these therapies," said Esther Afolalu, a graduate student and researcher at the University of Warwick. 

university of warwick

university of warwick

"Current psychological treatments for chronic pain have mostly focused on pain management and a lesser emphasis on sleep but there is a recent interest in developing therapies to tackle both pain and sleep problems simultaneously."

Researchers found that people who believe they won't be able to sleep because of their pain are more likely to suffer from insomnia, thus causing more pain. The vicious cycle of pain and sleeping problems was significantly reduced after patients received instructions in cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy in which a therapist works with a patient to reduce unhelpful thinking and behavior.

The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, is not the first to explore the connection between pain and poor sleep.

A 2015 study published in the journal PAIN linked insomnia and impaired sleep to reduced pain tolerance in a large sample of over 10,000 adults in Norway. Those who had trouble sleeping at least once a week had a 52% lower pain tolerance, while those who reported insomnia once a month had a 24% lower tolerance for pain.