6 Expert Tips for Better Sleep With Chronic Back Pain

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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For so many of us, a good night’s sleep isn’t that easy to come by in the best of circumstances. But if you’ve ever dealt with a strained muscle, herniated disc, or another issue affecting your back, you know it can seriously mess with your rest. Even more frustrating? Sleeping poorly doesn’t just leave you groggy and irritated the next day—research shows it can actually make your pain worse.1

The first step toward feeling better is to get to the bottom of what’s causing your discomfort, Nadya M. Dhanani, MD, a pain medicine specialist at UTHealth, tells SELF. For example, you might have muscle strain—say, from helping a pal move into a new apartment—that could clear up on its own in a few weeks. But if your ache is due to an underlying inflammatory condition like arthritis, you might feel better (and get more solid sleep) with a treatment plan from a doc. However, no matter what’s causing your back issues, you’re far from helpless. Try these six expert-approved strategies to get a more comfortable, restorative slumber ASAP.

1. Keep moving throughout the day.

A bit of gentle physical activity can play a key role in helping your body stay more comfortable at night, says Dr. Dhanani. That’s because any movement—even just walking—can help boost blood flow to your back’s soft tissues, which can reduce overall stiffness.2 Unless your doc recommends differently, set an alarm on your phone to get up and move for a few minutes several times each day, especially if you have a desk job. There’s no hard-set number of times you should do it, but Dr. Dhanani recommends taking a short walk break each time you get up to use the restroom.

Having strong core muscles can also help ward off back pain, Dr. Dhanani adds. Once you’ve gotten the green light from your doctor—which is always a good idea when starting to exercise, but is especially important in this context—here are a few midsection-strengthening moves to try.

2. Find relief with heat or ice.

If you’re hurting, both heat and ice are common remedies—and your back is no exception. Generally speaking, warmth loosens up tight, stiff muscles, and cold can help cut down on swelling and inflammation. Ice is typically the best option for a recent injury, like a strained muscle, and heat is more soothing for chronic, long-term problems, such as arthritis, Wellington K. Hsu, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Northwestern Medical Group, tells SELF. Dr. Hsu recommends applying ice or heat to your back for 20 minutes throughout the day, or as often as feels good.

When it comes to your nighttime routine, though, heat may be the way to go, says Dr. Dhanani. Try soaking in a warm bath before slipping into your pj’s, or wrapping a heating pad around your back in bed while reading.

3. Take a pain reliever.

Inflammation can be a major contributor to backaches—regardless of what causes it.3 That’s why Dr. Hsu recommends popping an over-the-counter (OTC) non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) 30 minutes before bed. Ibuprofen is one common option, but it usually only lasts four to six hours, per Dr. Hsu. So if you find yourself waking up wincing, you might choose something else. He often recommends naproxen for his patients, which typically lasts 8 to 12 hours. It’s important to note, however, that naproxen (or any NSAID) can potentially cause stomach issues if you take it for too long. Just give your doctor a heads up if you’re using it fairly regularly—sometimes they can prescribe other things to offset gastro-related side effects.

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