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How to Get Good Sleep with a Bad Back

Published April 26, 2017
| Written By SpineNation Editorial Staff  
Tags:  Insomnia

Ever notice after that night of tossing and turning, counting sheep, or even your ceiling pattern, that you wake up feeling more back pain? When it's finally morning and you have to start your day, you find yourself a little more annoyed from a lack of a good night's sleep. There's an actual connection between back pain and sleep (and the bad days that follow). They go hand-in-hand.

“We don’t take sleep seriously enough,” said Michael J. Sateia, M.D., medical director of the Sleep Disorders Service at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire. “It’s essential to life. If you disrupt the sleep cycle, you could face grave health repercussions throughout your body.”

Getting enough sleep may eliminate health risks, but which ones? Let's examine them.

Your Mind

What does a bad night's sleep mean to your health? Low-quality sleep or sleep deprivation may negatively impact your mood, which then instills consequences for learning, the ability to retain information, and even motivation levels.

Researchers Timothy P. Brawn, et al, at the University of Chicago observed that “Findings indicate that although people may appear to forget much of their learning over the course of a day, a night’s sleep will restore it; moreover, sleep protected the memory from loss over the course of the next day. In other words, sleep can dramatically affect the way you live…and remember it!”

When you don't sleep well, it carries over and can affect the rest of your day, specifically lack of focus, increased anxiety, and even feelings of depression.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Anxiety causes sleeping problems, and new research suggests sleep deprivation can cause an anxiety disorder. Research also shows that some form of sleep disruption is present in nearly all psychiatric disorders. Studies also show that people with chronic insomnia are at high risk of developing an anxiety disorder.”

Your Body

Weight gain on a bad back has been proven to create new or more intense symptoms. An overweight core places pressure on your back and spine increasing your chances of prolonged back pain. Dr. John Schmidt II, a brain and spine specialist at Neurological Associates, Inc in Charleston, West Virginia said, “If you want to have a strong back, you need to have a strong core.”

Excess weight can also affect your ability to receive selective back surgeries. If you can't obtain the proper treatment—in this case surgery—you may not get the relief you need.
It's all about a sleep schedule.
If you’re looking for digital help with regulating sleep, try these apps.

SleepyTime (iOS, Android). Designed to help you monitor your sleep activity, analyze your sleep cycles in addition to waking you at your desired rising time.

David Shaw, a 24-year-old director of engineers at Redspin created the app “as a project for [his] own use, so that when [he] had to get up or fall asleep at strange times, [he] didn’t need to do any math in [his] head.”

Apple's Bedtime App (iOS). Reminds you to go to bed and ensures that you get the desired amount of sleep. It also has some much nicer alarm sounds than the standard iPhone ringtones, making waking up slightly more enjoyable.

Sweet Dreams (Android). Designed to help you sleep better, it allows you to set what time you go to sleep and what time you wake. From there, you can set various actions for sleep mode, such as silencing your ringer, changing your screen timer, and disabling Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. The app provides location, motion and sound settings as well.

Timeriffic (Android). Lets you create multiple profiles for saving various phone settings; set one for bedtime when the ringers are turned off, and set another for when you’re in an office meeting.

With so many distractions, it's not uncommon that people everywhere have terrible sleep schedules. Whether you don't get enough sleep, can't fall asleep, are in too much back pain to even consider sleeping, or maybe you drank a caffeinated beverage a little too late in the day, it can be difficult to establish a night time routine. One of these apps may be able to help you create a consistent bedtime routine.


First things first: You need to establish a bedtime routine. We all have habits—make this your new habit. Try to go to bed at the same time each night. Follow a routine such as setting your alarm (or using the suggested bedtime apps), putting on your pajamas and brushing your teeth.

Start unwinding—even if you feel the pressure of your back pain—whether you are ready or not. By entering sleep mode, your brain will be that much more ready to rest when you go to lay your head down. You'll also find that your body will begin to adjust and know to wind down when you begin the routine.

Do not read, work, or watch TV in bed for at least an hour before you plan to sleep. Allow your bed to be your happy dream place. In fact, a study of nearly 850 (18–94 years old) adults reported that using a mobile phone after turning the lights off was associated with poor sleep quality, increased insomnia, and heightened symptoms of fatigue. If you must lay in bed with a device, use sleep mode. This turns off the blue lights that keep your brain in “daytime” mode.

"People are exposing their eyes to this stream of photons from these objects that basically tells your brain, 'Stay awake! It's not time to go to sleep yet,'" said Dr. Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Medicine.

Avoid stress. Stress is a major cause of insomnia and is also associated with chronic back pain. According to the National Sleep Foundation, anxiety and depression make falling asleep and staying asleep difficult. Compounded sleep loss leads to increased pain. Anxiety and depression may also increase pain sensitivity.

If you are feeling stressed or can't fall asleep because of any stressful thoughts, try deep breathing exercises. Simply take a deep breath through your nose for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and exhale for four seconds. Repeat until you feel calm.

Sounds. For many, soothing sounds offer a gentle vehicle to usher in sleep. You can buy a sound machine that plays anything from white noise to ocean waves. White noise releases a relaxing, ambient low-frequency static. You can find a variety of sound apps in your smartphone app store.

Aromatherapy. Some people have found essential oils to be helpful in treating pain and elevating mood or soothing the discomfort caused by pain. There are a number of essential oils that provide relief not only from the discomfort, but also anxiety and stress so you can relax.

  • Peppermint: Soothing and cooling, the fragrant peppermint is the perfect pain-reliever. It is both anti-inflammatory and analgesic. This will help with muscles and joint pain, headaches, arthritis, rheumatism and tendinitis.

  • Lavender: It is both an anti-inflammatory and a sedative (which will relax while it reduces swelling). It will help with muscle tension, spasms, joint pain, headaches and tendinitis.

  • Sweet Marjoram: This oil touts many significant health benefits, including inducing sleep. Its extracted from fresh and dried leaves of the marjoram plant.

  • Wintergreen: Popular with chronic pain sufferers this oil reduces pain and calms the body. It's ability to provide sound sleep in those with pain make it a popular oil.

Move. Move. Shake. Shake. 

Consider soothing exercises. Although it may seem counter-intuitive to work out before bed, we aren't talking about running a mile, rather light stretching.

Upside-Down Relaxation (time: 2 minutes)

  1. Lie with your butt against the head of our bed.
  2. Form an L shape by lifting your legs against the wall.
  3. Keeping a flat back, place your arms above your head or rest them across your chest.
  4. Relax, inhaling and exhaling.

Nighttime Goddess Stretch (time: 3-5 minutes)

  1. Lie on your back with the soles of your feet joined flatly at the heel.
  2. Extend arms at your sides at a 45-degree angle.
  3. Breathe, letting your knees drop toward the floor to stretch your groin muscles.
  4. Rest in the position for three to five minutes (or as long as it’s comfortable for you)

Rock-a-Bye Roll (time: 7-8 minutes)

  1. From a standing position, drop to a seated position collecting the knees into your arms.
  2. Roll back and then forward springing yourself back to a standing position using your core.
  3. Repeat

Child's Pose (time: 5-7 minutes)

  1. Sit with your legs folded beneath you, butt resting on your feet, back straight and arms at your sides
  2. Roll forward, lowering your torso towards the ground, head tucked between your arms, arms extended forward
  3. Hold the pose and breathe.

The end justifies the means

Making changes to your sleeping habits is a simple, effective solution. Choosing a supportive mattress and sturdier pillows can aid sleep. Studies point to using a medium-firm mattress to get the best sleep. If your mattress is firm, buy a padded mattress pad or an ‘egg crate’ pad. This creates a softer barrier between you and your mattress. As for pillows, choose a body pillow or thicker pillows that you can mold. Place one between or beneath your legs to help ease back pain as you sleep.

Updated: March 2, 2020

Information provided within this article is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for medical advice. Those seeking specific medical advice should consult his or her doctor or surgeon. If you need to consult with a specialist, you may be able find a health care provider in our Specialist Finder. SpineNation does not endorse treatments, procedures, products or physicians.

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