Lost Sleep Due to Back Pain

Should You Take Sleeping Pills?

A man has difficulty sleeping
A man has difficulty sleeping. SuperStock/SuperStock/Getty Images

People in Pain Don’t Sleep as Well

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that when you deal with neck or back pain, you are in jeopardy of wrecked sleep. In fact, it’s official – the National Sleep Foundation, in their 2015 Sleep in America Poll, found that 63% of people they surveyed who had chronic pain (and 55% of people with acute pain, i.e., in the last 7 days) reported that their sleep quality was bad.

The Foundation's Poll also revealed that while overall 6% of people questioned (who were either not in pain or had acute pain only) were diagnosed with a sleep disorder, the number jumped to 23% percent in the chronic pain population.

On average, the Foundation says, people in chronic pain lose about 42 minutes of sleep they could otherwise have. (This is called “sleep debt.”) Sleep debt is a relevant concept because one component of the medical diagnosis of insomnia involves impairment of your functioning in the day(s) following a sleepless night. I don’t know about you, but when I lose time out of a full night’s rest, I not only feel foggy and uncoordinated the next day, but my decision-making and behavior can also be affected. 

Are Sleeping Pills the Answer?

The fact is pain and sleep are intertwined and the relationship is complex. But if you deal with chronic spine pain, does this automatically mean you should turn to sleeping pills to reclaim that lost slumber time?

Granted, the idea of “give me a pill for that” is very tempting when insomnia sets in for some, but this strategy has a few things going against it.

Drug Marketing Tactics

In 2006, The New York Times reported that about 42 million prescriptions for sleep medication were issued in 2005. The article discusses how drug marketers target and capitalize on the public perception that “modern day lifestyle” is frenetic.

The NYT says drug manufacturers use strategies such as ad bombardment, advertising to prescribing physicians, and campaigns timed with the unveiling of the latest season of the TV show Desperate Housewives.

Don't Bother Your Doctor About Your Insomnia - She's Busy

In a 2008 clinical guideline (a guideline is an evidenced-based framework doctors can use as a reference when diagnosing and treating a medical condition) that was published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, researchers comment that insomnia has a variety of causes and symptoms, which makes “the evaluation and management of chronic insomnia demanding on a clinician’s time.”  

Many patients complain their doctors are pressed for time anyway, so this extra workload burden could lead to an inaccurate diagnosis. And without an accurate diagnosis, you may not get the most effective treatment or therapy.

Where's the Research that Says Drugs Do the Job Best?

You would think that if your doctor prescribes a medication, using it would be a safe and effective experience.

Unfortunately, this is not always true, particularly in the case of opioids. Opioids are narcotics, so right there, you’re running the risk of becoming addicted if you rely on them too much, or if you – for whatever reason – don’t take them according to your doctor’s or pharmacist’s directions.

And while many doctors prescribe opioids for sleep, at least one review of medical studies found a lack of evidence as to how well they work. Mystakidou, et al., in their review entitled “Treatment of chronic pain by long-acting opioids and the effects on sleep,” comment, “there is a surprising paucity of data on the effects of opioids on sleep.”

In another review, Schutte-Rodin, et. al, found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a short-term type of therapy that helps people deal with their pain (or other type of) triggers, was just as effective without accompanying sleep medication as when drugs were concurrently taken. The authors add that drugs and CBT share similar goals as treatments: to improve sleep quality and quantity, to enhance your daytime function, and to increase total sleep time.  


Start Reclaiming Your Sleep Now

The good news in all this is, according to the Sleep Foundation, is that if you make getting sleep a priority and you’re truly motivated, you can regain up to 36 of your lost minutes. The Sleep Foundation suggests staying away from caffeine and alcohol near bedtime and also using relaxation techniques.

Learn about mindfulness-based stress reduction for chronic insomnia.


Mystakidou K1, Clark AJ, Fischer J, Lam A, Pappert K, Richarz U. Treatment of chronic pain by long-acting opioids and the effects on sleep. Pain Pract. 2011 May-Jun;

National Sleep Foundation. Pain and Sleep. National Pain Foundation website. Accessed Dec 2015 https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-disorders-problems/pain-and-sleep

Saul, Stephanie. Record Sales of Sleep Pills Cause Worry. New York Times. Tuesday, February 7, 2006.

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