7 Real-World Tips for Sleeping with Chronic Back Pain
My chronic back pain started a year after my significant other was hospitalized for back surgery. For six weeks, he was unable to lift anything over five pounds, carry bags of groceries home, or do the laundry. That meant I had to do all the chores and heavy lifting, which is one of the many things that triggered my pain.
On a scale of 1-10 (with 1 being minimal pain and 10 being the worst pain imaginable), my back pain was an 8 most of the time. Sleeping while I was in so much pain was difficult, and that impacted my focus and productivity. I'm self-employed and interact with a lot of clients—but because sleep deprivation creates irritability and makes it hard to focus, dealing with people was a lot more challenging than it normally is.
I knew I needed to do something to relieve my back pain so that I could get the sleep I so desperately needed. I didn't want to rely solely on pain meds, so I tried a lot of different methods to soothe my sore back.
Here's what works for me.
I stretch before bed
After a doctor concluded that my pain was the result of stress-induced muscular strain, I started seeing a physical therapist. At my first session, I learned that yoga stretches strengthen your back muscles, so I started incorporating a few of them into my pre-bedtime routine. My favorite stretches are downward facing dog and child's pose. They kill the pain faster than Tylenol and also calm my mind, increasing my chances of getting a good night's sleep.
I get professional massages
After my partner had recovered from his surgery, we started to prep for a trip to England. This was my first time doing a trans-continental flight since my back pain started, so I didn't know what to expect—and I was worried that sleeping on the plane and in hotels while away from home would be close to impossible.
Fortunately, a week before my trip I booked my first massage. This brought the tension in my back down several notches and gave me two days of uninterrupted sleep. I also switched from a purse to a backpack before leaving for my trip because putting all the weight on one side of my body was making my back pain a lot worse.
I use topical pain relievers
Professional massages can get expensive, but I found a way to soothe my achy back at home without having to spend too much money. While I had always had a skeptical attitude toward herbal remedies, a "tea sommelier" I visited one weekend recommended flaxseed oil massages to cure back pain. I picked up a bottle at an organic food store, and my partner and I massaged each other's backs with it. That evening was the first bedtime in months where I didn't have to take Tylenol. For a week, the pain was manageable. I even gained the courage to go for my first run in months.
While out of town recently, I forgot to pack my flaxseed oil with me—so I decided to take a pharmacist's recommendation of Tiger Balm, a topical pain reliever that contains ingredients like menthol and eucalyptus. Luckily, it worked similarly to flaxseed oil and provided a lot of relief.
Related: How to sleep better with back pain
I try alternative therapies
One day, I slipped on ice on my way home from work. There went all the progress I had made in curing my back pain. So the next time I went to the physical therapist, she dedicated an entire session to a massage treatment called cupping. Cupping is a process during which a trained professional puts suction cups on a painful area for a few minutes. Although it felt like the creature from Alien was crawling on my back, it relaxed my muscles into a manageable "5" on the pain scale.
I stand up while I work
Eventually, I noticed that when I hunched in front of a computer, my back pain would always return. Since posture is a hard thing to correct, it took a new keyboard, mouse, and laptop stand to get rid of my hunching habit. When I use the laptop stand and all its accessories, my posture is perfect and helps mitigate my back pain.
I experiment with different sleep positions
I started small, by putting a pillow between my legs when I slept. Then, I made changes based on what I noticed about my pain triggers. Because the causes of pain will vary, the best advice I have for you is to react based on what's causing your pain. For example, I quickly learned that when I sleep on my side, I'm a lot more likely to wake up in pain—so I don't snooze in that position anymore.
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I take deep breaths
Even when I proactively take steps to deal with my back pain, it still sometimes comes in waves. So when I'm having a particularly bad night, I'll slowly inhale, count to five, hold in my breath, count to five, exhale, count to five, then repeat until I'm too sleepy to continue.
Next, learn how one writer manages her acid reflux so it doesn't interfere with her sleep.