We all have all experienced the day after a particularly late night when we just couldn’t put down a book, turn off the TV, had to work into the wee hours, tended to a love one, and felt so tired we wished for the opportunity to take a quick nap. But it’s not the same for those of us suffering from chronic pain. We don’t just have an occasional moment we’d like to shut our eyes and take a minute to recover. Chronic pain is exhausting. Not just because of the physical and emotional toll it takes but the devastating impact it has on our sleep patterns. From waking up constantly to not sleeping at all. Those are the worst, an entire night tossing and turning, trying to find any position that’ll allow a few moments of relief while the clock ticks away the minutes.
Are naps the answer?
Yes….. and no.
They aren’t an alternative to a good night’s sleep. That’s always the priority. Too often we desperately want to break the never ending cycle of pain and sleepless nights by taking products that alter our sleep cycles or sleeping late when possible. All can exacerbate an already overwhelming problem.
Remember, disrupted sleep is the result of a multitude of underlying concerns, not the cause of one. The priority is learning why it’s disturbed. Is it due to pain, stress, anxiety, illness…? Treating the problem should result in a more restful night.
And the data is mixed.
One study found daytime napping was associated with: worsening pain, depression, memory difficulties, increased sleep impairment. Another found naps may have decreased cognitive function and “brain fog” leading to further exhaustion. And a third found those who napped were two times more likely to die of any cause compared to those who didn’t nap! The results were maintained even when controlling for gender, age, disease severity and mood disorders.
Some found just sitting or lying down for 20 minutes caused joints and muscles to spasm, tighten and ache from the inactivity. Others couldn’t nap for just a few minutes at a time, often sleeping far longer due to the built up fatigue. This then disrupted nighttime sleep cycles even further, worsening the cycle.
And significant “daytime sleepiness” may be a sign of something far more concerning such as obstructive sleep apnea, anemia, thyroid dysfunction, or narcolepsy. All requiring interventions to resolve.
On the other side, several studies found naps helpful. In these studies, participants reported a 30 minute nap helped to relieve pain more than taking an ibuprofen. Memory and thinking were also improved. Another showed skipping Starbucks for that caffeine fix and turning to a 15-30 minute nap actually worked better.
The problem is not all sleep deprived, chronic pain patients are alike. We each have our own unique set of issues that culminate in a sleepless night. And not all treatment regimens offer the same results. What works for me may not be the best combination for you.
So, what’s the answer?
Listen to your body. If you require a nap everyday to function see your healthcare provider to ensure nothing else is at play. But an occasional nap is fine. No one is saying stop if it helps you to recover and get through the day feeling more energized. For some napping, like breathing, may be the only way to survive some days.
If naps work for you the National Sleep Foundation recommends staying under 30 minutes. Anything longer kicks in deeper stages of sleep where the brain waves slow down, making arousal difficult, so you feel groggy and worse than when you started the nap. Anything over 30 minutes requires at least 90 minutes to get through an entire cycle of sleep allowing you to feel rejuvenated upon awakening. But this amount of time may make getting a restful sleep that night more difficult.
Try these tips:
*Avoid napping late in the afternoon, most experts agree it’s best around 1-3 PM and never later than 4 PM.
* limit naps to 30 minutes or less for the above reasons.
*don’t alter your normal bedtime routine because of a nap.
*only use naps as a short term intervention.
* immediately stretch upon awakening to loosen up muscles and get oxygen to all areas. This also decrease brain fog.
*set an alarm so you don’t oversleep.
* find a comfy place to nap, just not your bed. That should be reserved solely for nighttime sleep.
* block out all other distractions e.g. music, computers, phones.
*keep the environment as dark as possible.
*Try add a refreshing eye wrap.
Better yet, instead of sleeping use the time to rest, relax and give yourself a few minutes to recover and de-stress. Just the act of stopping for a few minutes to breath and reboot can actually revitalize and invigorate tired, achy muscles, as well as an overworked, hyper-stimulated brain.
*gently stretch and mobilize to lubricate painful joints. Tai chi can be done in just a few minutes
* can’t leave your chair? Take advantage of simple chair exercises that can be done in limited spaces.
* meditate to relieve tension and let go of worries that can increase cortisol levels and pain.
* get outside. Talk a walk, breath in the fresh air. It’ll give you a new perspective and a much needed break from the office.
* try getting to bed earlier so you have more opportunity to sleep the full 7-9 hours recommended.
Is napping right for you? That’s up to each individual to decide. Just make sure it’s not required because there’s an underlying health issue or causing further sleep problems later that night. Napping should never replace a good night’s sleep, but for those occasional days when you just can’t keep your eyes open or need a brief break, give it a try.