Insomnia is common among people with chronic pain. It’s also problematic. It typically makes your pain worse and saps your abilities to cope. Understanding and overcoming insomnia is therefore important to successfully self-manage chronic pain.
Overcoming insomnia is possible for most people with chronic pain. Like most good things in life, though, it takes some work. There are no quick fixes when it comes to overcoming insomnia. There are actually a number of steps in the process. First, it’s helpful to understand the cyclical nature of chronic pain and insomnia. Second, it’s helpful to understand something about the three basic treatment options that are available for insomnia. Third, pursue one or some combination of these options.
Understanding the cyclical nature of chronic pain and insomnia
It’s common to think of chronic pain as the sole cause of insomnia – as if it’s a one-way street from chronic pain to insomnia. In some ways, of course, it makes sense as pain does in fact make it hard to sleep at night. Pain is a function of our nervous systems and when in pain our nervous systems are reactive. Our normal physical, emotional, and cognitive responses to pain are indicative of this reactive nervous system as well: we remain tense, alarmed, and focused on the pain. None of these automatic reactions to pain are conducive to falling or remaining asleep!
From these observations about pain and its effect on sleep, it seems logical that the best thing to do is to get rid of the pain. This approach, however, is insufficient in most cases of chronic pain.
First, this approach assumes that we can get rid of chronic pain. The reality, though, is that we can’t get rid of it. This fact is one of the things we mean when we use the adjective “chronic.” The most powerful procedures and medications can only reduce chronic pain, and don’t tend to get rid of it. So, there is no way around the fact that most people with chronic pain go to bed with pain. Even if it’s reduced, pain can continue to disrupt sleep.
Second, even if there was a way to fully cure chronic pain, it still might not be sufficient to overcome insomnia once you have it. Certainly, pain can start a bout of insomnia. However, insomnia is almost invariably maintained by more factors than just pain. One common factor is anticipatory anxiety about experiencing another night of insomnia. As you experience an insufficient amount of sleep night after night, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll start to worry about not sleeping as it comes time to go to bed. The arousal associated with this worry –as a form of anxiety or nervousness – can itself prevent you from falling asleep. In other words, insomnia can come to maintain itself!
Third, anxiety of all types can cause or maintain insomnia. People with chronic pain can become anxious for any number of reasons: loss of work; how to pay the bills; people not understanding what you are going through; loss of social or recreational activities; loss of your role in the family; and so on. People with chronic pain can also have anxiety disorders unrelated to their chronic pain. All of these issues can initiate and/or maintain insomnia.
Indeed, in most people with chronic pain, insomnia has multiple contributing causes. Certainly, pain can be one of those causes, but typically it is not the only cause. Moreover, these multiple contributing causes can come to exacerbate each other, making a vicious cycle of chronic pain and insomnia.
For example, say that chronic pain initially causes insomnia in someone. Over time, the insomnia becomes further complicated by nightly bed-time anticipatory anxiety about not getting enough sleep. At some point, worry sets in about loss of work, medical bills, strained marriage, and so forth. All of these factors come to maintain the insomnia over and above the role that pain has in maintaining insomnia. This chronic lack of sleep further stresses the person’s nervous system, making the reactive nervous system even more reactive. As such, the stress of it all makes the original chronic pain worse via its effects on the nervous system. As a result, we have a vicious cycle of chronic pain causing insomnia, which, in turn, makes the chronic pain worse.
This state of affairs reduces the individual’s ability to cope with pain and any of the other life’s stressors. Chronic pain and chronic insomnia can take its toll on anyone. This decreasing ability to cope fosters a greater sense of stress, which, in turn, elicits further pain and insomnia.
Chronic pain and insomnia are therefore complex phenomena that occur in a cyclical nature.
Therapies to address these problems must reflect this complexity. It just isn’t realistic to think that there can be simple, easy or quick fix to insomnia related to chronic pain.
Therapies for insomnia related to chronic pain
Many people rely on so-called “sleeping pills” to cope with insomnia. These pills are from two classes of medications that are technically called hypnotics (e.g., zolpidem) and benzodiazepines (e.g., diazepam). While common, their use is controversial in the healthcare field.
A number of problems are associated with their use. While providing short-term relief, they do not actually cure insomnia. Upon stopping their use, insomnia typically returns and, in the case of using benzodiazepines, the insomnia typically returns worse than when you initially started the use of the medication (Longo & Johnson, 2000). Moreover, the use of hypnotics has been associated with sleep-walking and other behaviors performed while sleeping (Morganthaler & Silber, 2002). In addition, it’s generally known that both classes of medications aren’t very effective. When compared to placebo, people taking hypnotics fall asleep on average 12.8 minutes sooner and people taking benzodiazepine medications fall asleep 10 minutes sooner (Buscemi, et al., 2007). Lastly, their use reinforces subtle, yet important, beliefs about yourself and your abilities to overcome insomnia. Namely, they foster associations that insomnia is a medical problem and that you need to rely on medicines to resolve this medical problem. In other words, they serve as a nightly reminder that you can’t overcome it yourself. You remain, in a word, helpless and must rely on something external to you (i.e., the pill) to do it for you. Now, of course, no one has these thoughts on an overt basis when going to bed at night after taking these medications. But, these subtle beliefs inevitably come to mind when the prospect of reducing the use of these medications is raised. After their long-term use, people can become quite concerned about reducing their use. The prospect is almost inevitably distressing and leaves people feeling helpless to the return of insomnia. What we are really talking about, here, is a subtle form of psychological dependence – the belief that you need the “sleeping pill” in order to sleep at night.
For all these reasons, the use of hypnotics and benzodiazepines for insomnia is controversial.
Chronic pain rehabilitation providers typically prefer to use a combination of two other types of therapies. These therapies are the use of tricyclic antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Tricyclic antidepressants are old style antidepressants that are typically no longer used for depression. They are, however, used for chronic pain and insomnia. One of them, amitriptyline, is one of the most effective pain medications available (Hauser, Wolfe, Tolle, Uceyler, & Sommer, 2012; Wong, Chung, & Wong, 2007). They are also somewhat sedating and so are used at night to aid in falling and staying asleep. They do not produce a sense of dependency as often seen in hypnotics and benzodiazepines.
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia is a short-term psychotherapy, usually provided by the psychologist on the chronic pain rehabilitation team. Cognitive behavioral therapy by itself can resolve insomnia once and for all. It breaks the vicious cycles of insomnia and creates new patterns of sleeping. However, it takes a whole lot more work than taking a pill.
Cognitive behavioral therapy requires a multi-pronged effort over time on the part of the patient. It involves the following:
- Sleep hygiene changes
- Regular use of relaxation exercises
- Regular mild, low impact aerobic exercise
- Cognitive interventions in which you learn how to overcome worry, or anxious thinking
- Cognitive interventions in which you change your conceptualization of sleep to a more accurate and healthy understanding
- Stimulus control (i.e., breaking patterns or associations that have developed over time between being in the bedroom and being awake)
- Sleep restriction (i.e., intentionally limiting when you lay down to sleep or remain asleep in order to develop a normal sleep-wake cycle within the 24-hour day)
- Tapering hypnotic or benzodiazepine medication use
Cognitive behavioral therapy is generally considered the most effective treatment for insomnia (Mitchell, Gehrman, Perlis, & Umscheid, 2012; Riemann & Perlis, 2009; Smith, et al., 2002; Taylor, Schmidt-Nowara, Jessop, & Ahearn, 2010).
While cognitive behavioral therapy is hard work, it neatly fits into the established protocols of a chronic pain rehabilitation program. As we have discussed in previous posts, chronic pain rehabilitation programs are cognitive behavioral based programs that already involve engaging in regular mild aerobic exercise, regular relaxation exercises, lifestyle changes some of which overlap with fostering sleep hygiene, and cognitive interventions for managing pain which have some overlap with those for managing insomnia.
The right approach for you
Whenever you decide upon a therapy that’s best for you, it is important that you discus it with your healthcare providers and allow them to be part of the decision making process. They are working for you and should have your best interests in mind. They also have an expertise in the field as well as knowledge of you as an individual, which puts them in the best position to advise you on what’s best.
It’s also important to get advice from healthcare providers who practice in the manner that’s right for you. As discussed in a previous blog post, all pain clinics are not alike. There are chronic pain rehabilitation clinics. There are long-term opioid management clinics. There are interventional pain clinics. There are spine surgery clinics. They can all go by the name of a “pain clinic.” Some of these clinics may be more prone to recommend hypnotic or benzodiazepine medications for your insomnia. Some of these clinics, specifically clinics with chronic pain rehabilitation programs, are apt to be more prone to recommend tricyclic antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy for your insomnia.
Buscemi, N., Vandermeer, B., Friesen, C., Bialy, L., Tubman, M., Ospina, M., Klassen, T. P., & Witmans, M. (2007). The efficacy and safety of drug treatments for chronic insomnia in adults: A meta-analysis of RCTs. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 22, 1335-1350.
Hauser, W., Wolfe, F., Tolle, T., Uceyler, N. & Sommer, C. (2012). The role of antidepressants in the management of fibromyalgia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. CNS Drugs, 26, 297-307.
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Mitchell, M. D., Gehrman, P., Perlis, M., & Umscheid, C. A. (2012). Comparative effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia: A systematic review. BMC Family Practice, 13, 40.
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Taylor, D. J., Schmidt-Nowara, W., Jessop, C. A., & Ahearn, J. (2010). Sleep restriction therapy and hypnotic withdrawal versus sleep hygiene education in hypnotic using patients. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 6(2), 169-175.
Wong, M., Chung, J. W., & Wong, T. K. (2007). Effects of treatments for symptoms of painful diabetic neuropathy: A systematic review. British Medical Journal, 335, 87.
Author: Murray J. McAllister, PsyD
Date of last modification: 10-16-2013