Has waking up with unexplained back pain become a familiar start to your morning routine? If your back hurts and there was no heavy lift or accident that could have caused it, the problem may be your sleep habits.
Peter Lucchio, PsyD, a psychologist with the Bone & Joint Institute at Hartford HealthCare, says poor sleep hygiene can not only cause low back pain, but it can cause it to linger despite other interventions.
“When we have back pain, it can be difficult to imagine that our lifestyle may have contributed to the development or maintenance of the problem,” he says. “But, over the past 10 years, there has been growing evidence in the scientific literature of the role psychosocial factors (such as sleep) play in back pain.”
How does it work?
Dr. Lucchio points to a 2014 study that found athletes getting less than eight hours of sleep a night were 1.7 times more likely to develop an injury compared to those who slept at least eight hours. This could be due to impaired decision-making, poor focus, decreased coordination or reduced effort – all stemming from inadequate sleep.
“The easy answer then is to prioritize behavior that improves our sleep quality,” he notes. “That starts with establishing a pre-bedtime routine that promotes relaxation.”
So what can be done? Dr. Lucchio offers these tips for getting better quality sleep – and preventing back pain.
Getting ready for bed
- Establishing a routine. By going to bed at the same time every day, you can train your body to get tired at just the right time each night. Your circadian rhythm (internal clock) will adjust too, improving the overall quality of your sleep.
- Taking a hot shower or bath. It might sound counterintuitive, but the improved blood flow from a warm shower or bath can actually lower your body’s core temperature – and help you fall asleep faster.
- Skipping big meals. Eating before bed is another sure-fire way to knock your circadian rhythm off-balance. Indigestion and acid reflux can also disrupt sleep, so it’s best to eat large meals at least three hours before going to bed.
- Avoiding TV and social media. Try reading a book or magazine instead! Engaging with TV or social media before bed can overstimulate the brain or increase feelings of anxiety. Either way, it’s sure to decrease sleep quality.
- Dimming the lights. We all know that darkness is crucial for sleeping, but did you know that dimming the lights before bed can help you fall asleep faster? Light signals the brain to stay alert, and suppresses melatonin.
- Keeping the room quiet. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that noise can disrupt sleep – even noise levels as low as 40 decibels. But if you’re in an unfamiliar location and you’re struggling to sleep, the opposite can also be true. If the absence of a comforting sound is keeping you awake, try a white noise maker.
During the day
All throughout the day, there are opportunities to improve the quality of your (future) sleep. These include:
- Getting regular exposure to daylight. While light exposure in the evening can keep you awake, daylight in the morning and afternoon tells your body that it’s time to be active. When you’re ready to turn the lights out, the contrast will help you fall asleep.
- Avoiding naps. Napping throughout the day can increase feelings of drowsiness, or make it difficult to fall asleep at night. If you do find yourself needing a nap, try to aim for 20-40 minutes, to avoid falling into a deep (and potentially disruptive) sleep.
- Keeping your bedroom at a comfortable temperature. You might have noticed that it’s more comfortable to sleep in a cool room – and science agrees. A higher core temperature can actually prevent you from falling into a deep, REM sleep.
- Getting out of bed at the same time every day. Just like going to sleep at the same time every night, getting up at the same time helps keep your circadian rhythm in check.
“If you make one of these changes each day, it should only take about two weeks to start sleeping well and feeling better,” Dr. Lucchio says.