The link between chronic pain, trauma and disrupted sleep

Dr. Guy Ashburner, osteopath

Do you awaken in the morning refreshed and ready to go? Sufficient sleep is critical to our health and is the body’s time to repair, rejuvenate and prepare for the next day. Unfortunately many people get far less sleep than they need.  Sleeplessness is a quite common problem but, when it starts to become chronic, it becomes a big burden.

As a result, individuals suffer from excessive daytime fatigue or sleepiness, low motivation and energy, poor concentration and an inability to stay focused, irritability, predisposition to illness and many other negative side effects, such as poor quality of life, unexplained depression and anxiety, mood changes that can’t be explained, gastrointestinal symptoms and even lack of coordination, which can lead to errors and accidents. Insomnia is often correlated with health issues.

The characteristic sign of insomnia is the inability to fall asleep. Individuals may lie awake for ages, staring at the ceiling, just hoping for some sleep or wake up in the middle of the night and be unable to fall back asleep. Insomnia is typically followed by functional impairment while awake.

Insomnia happens for a variety of reasons. Some of the more common causes include high levels of stress, emotional distress, trauma, changed or poor sleeping environment, certain medications and drugs, alcohol and coffee consumption, loud noises like a baby crying, uncomfortable temperatures, bright lights, electromagnetic frequencies from your wi-fi, cellphone, fitbits and 5G, anxiety and depression, excessive worry and sleep apnea.  Sleep apnea happens when breathing is obstructed during sleep, which then causes a brief pause in breathing and an awakening sensation by the sufferer. This can be caused by the shape of the mouth and airways, head trauma, or excessive weight.

Pain seems to be a leading factor in poor quality of sleep. Pain can cause poor sleep and poor sleep can cause pain by lowering the body’s threshold for pain. Studies show that poor sleep is impacted by chronic pain.

Chronic pain, such as headaches, pain in the spine, neck, hips and legs, can cause discomfort when you are trying to get comfortable and sleep. Successful sleep requires a certain level of comfort and pain often keeps the body from reaching a state of comfort. As pain is perceived by the nervous system, it can create irritability and increase pain signals. The higher the pain, the more difficult it is for the body to read signals correctly and to sleep.

When people suffer from stress for a long time their heart rates and breathing may be affected, resulting in an associated generalised increase in muscle tension as well as an increased tension in upper respiratory muscles. Short-term insomnia may be experienced by most adults in their lives when they experience a traumatic event, such as a death in their family or a severe injury.

You might have tried sleeping pills or an alcoholic drink to help you fall asleep. The majority of the time, these aids can only offer temporary assistance. But these will only damage your body.

Osteopaths look for health problems occurring alongside insomnia and contributing to it. An osteopath is a medical professional who works to adjust and manipulate the body’s muscular and skeletal system to reduce pain, regain mobility, improve posture and improve health. Osteopathic treatment is non-invasive. Insomnia may be the clinical manifestation of other sub-clinical issues and a combination of treatments may be the most effective depending on the individual presentation of each patient. Patients may be asked about sleeping habits, diet, stress levels and daily schedule.

The first way an osteopath can help you address insomnia is by getting to the root cause of your sleep issues. It is always better if we can address the cause of insomnia so that your body can sleep naturally. After identifying the root cause of insomnia, it is possible to develop a firm treatment plan. This is much better than simply covering up the issue on the surface. It is worth noting that paediatric osteopathy may be helpful in treating and relaxing unsettled babies and children who may be up at night interrupting your much needed sleep.

Even though you may have been advised to take important prescription medication to make it easier for you to fall asleep at night, this is not always what needs to be the case. Finding a natural solution should be an ultimate goal for your health without potential side effects of medication. However an osteopath or other healthcare practitioner needs to work in conjunction with the patient’s general practitioner.

It’s important to note that most people that suffer from insomnia don’t have all of these symptoms but display at least one of them. The osteopath may question you about or ask you to monitor yourself for behaviour changes that you have no explanation for.

Since osteopathic care is mostly viewed as a means for managing back pain, neck pain, headaches, TMJ dysfunction, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and sports injuries, many people fail to understand its importance in improving your sleep. Osteopaths focus on the whole musculoskeletal system including your spine, correcting any misalignments that are present and boosting the spine’s overall health.  This means that pain and tension that build in the spine and other associated areas of the body may be released and, the more comfortable the body, the easier it is to relax and fall asleep.

The spine, with its peripheral nerves, is directly connected to the central nervous system. A misalignment of the vertebrae can disturb the nervous system to the point of causing insomnia. The nervous system is composed of the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems. These two systems manage the unconscious activities of the whole body, such as respiration, heartbeat, circulation, digestion and all bodily functions without conscious will. Osteopathic care aims to enhance the body’s nervous system and the central nervous system is a key player in allowing efficient function of the body. The more efficient your body, the less wasted energy and the easier it is for your body and mind to wind down and fall asleep.

With specialised osteopathic techniques in soft tissue (massage), myofascial release, joint articulation, cranial osteopathy, Chapman’s reflexes, lymph drainage and subtle joint release, an osteopath can effectively address a musculoskeletal source of insomnia which may be influencing optimal function of the circulatory, lymphatic and nervous systems, as well as significantly improve mobility of the spine.

If you are dealing with insomnia, chronic pain and trauma, an osteopath may be able to help you address these problems. When you get a full night’s sleep, you will wake up the next day feeling rested and restored. If you or a loved one is suffering from insomnia, give your local osteopath a call. Quality care may lead to better sleep and quality sleep may lead to better health.

Dr. Guy Ashburner BSc(Hons)Ost(U.K),D.P.O(U.K) is an experienced osteopath of 18 years who emigrated from the United Kingdom to Cape Town, South Africa in 2006. Before graduating from the British School of Osteopathy and a postgraduate diploma at the Foundation for Paediatric Osteopathy in London, Guy qualified and worked as a personal trainer in Kensington, London. Guy embraces holistic osteopathic principles with focused rehabilitation and wellness for people of all ages and for those looking for deeper change.