Sleeping with Arthritis: Tips and Tricks to Improve Sleep and Lessen Pain

By Ally Hadfield

Arthritis is one of the most common effects of the aging process. It can lead to stiffness, aches, and restless limbs; what’s more, it can sometimes prevent a good night’s sleep. Thankfully, there are steps arthritis sufferers can take to ensure regular, restorative rest. In this guide, we’ll outline some simple yet effective strategies.

Woman in chronic pain

What is Arthritis?

Arthritis is characterized by swelling or tenderness in the joints. There are a couple of types of arthritis to be aware of: Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis causes cartilage to break down, while rheumatoid arthritis is actually a condition of the immune system, causing the body to attack the lining of the joints. Both of these conditions tend to worsen with age.

There are a number of common symptoms associated with arthritis, including:

  • Pain 
  • Stiffness
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Limited range of motion

Taken together, these symptoms can lead to significant discomfort. And, they can make it much harder to fall asleep at night.

How Arthritis Affects Your Sleep 

The relationship between arthritis and sleep hygiene is a complicated one. On the one hand, the pain and stiffness associated with arthritis make it harder to fall asleep at night. Studies show that 80 percent of people with arthritis have a hard time sleeping. At the same time, however, the lack of sleep can actually cause arthritis symptoms to worsen. Thus, it can be a vicious cycle.

Sleep and Inflammation

One reason why arthritis sufferers tend to have a hard time sleeping is inflammation. Inflammation is actually a natural function of the immune system, useful in warding off germs and diseases. However, acute inflammation, which can be caused by arthritis, results in the joints being red, swollen, and tender to the touch. Those with arthritis may battle chronic inflammation.

It’s worth noting that both sleep and inflammation are regulated by the same biological processes, specifically the circadian rhythms that control hormone production. As such, when you have trouble sleeping at night, it can also heighten your experience of inflammation. Again, there is a reciprocal relationship in play.

Restless Legs

Many people who struggle with arthritis also experience the symptoms of restless leg syndrome or RLS. In fact, RLS occurs in about 28 percent of rheumatoid arthritis patients, and about 24 percent of osteoarthritis patients. This is more than double the prevalence of RLS within the population at large.

But what is RLS, exactly? It’s a condition characterized by an uncomfortable sensation in the legs, making it necessary to move them. Many people with RLS describe the sensation as itchy, achy, or throbbing. While it’s unclear to scientists why RLS and arthritis are so closely connected, it is generally assumed that a dearth of the brain chemical dopamine is part of the issue.

Sleep Apnea

Those afflicted by arthritis may also be at a higher risk for developing sleep apnea, a dangerous breathing condition that can prevent you from getting a restful night of sleep. For those who have sleep apnea, the breathing can suddenly start and stop at irregular intervals throughout the night.

Some studies have shown that, among those with rheumatoid arthritis, incidence of sleep apnea occurs at a 75 percent higher rate. Scientists speculate that this could be due to structural abnormalities affecting the neck, head, and spine, all of which is quite common among those with rheumatoid arthritis.

Young woman sleeping on a bed in the bedroom.

Strategies to Improve Sleep with Arthritis

In short, those who have arthritis may find that it’s challenging to sleep soundly and comfortably; and, that lack of proper sleep can cause the arthritis symptoms to become worse. With that said, there are some sleep strategies that anyone with arthritis should know.

Exercise

Those with arthritis can sometimes be hesitant about exercise, fearing that it will make their joint pain even worse. Actually, regular exercise can lower pain, decrease stiffness, and improve range of motion. Plus, aerobic exercise during the day helps prepare the body for sleep at night.

Heat therapy

Another option is to use a heated pad, applying it to the afflicted area for about 15 or 20 minutes. Do this close to bedtime. The application of heat can help to reduce pain from swollen joints.

Ice

Ice can also help mediate the effects of arthritis, specifically by reducing inflammation. Try applying an ice pack for 15 to 20 minutes before bed.

Maintain a Schedule

One of the best all-around cures for insomnia is to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. This means waking up at the same time each morning and going to bed at the same time each evening. A regular bedtime routine, which might include a hot bath or a few minutes with a good book, can also help prepare the body for sleep.

Use Relaxation Techniques 

Meditation, mindful breathing exercises, and yoga can relax the body and soothe the mind. What’s more, these relaxation techniques have actually been shown to decrease the effects of chronic pain.

Sleep Accessories

Make sure you have a mattress (or mattress topper) that provides the firmness and support you need for relieving arthritis pain. Mattresses made with graphite or infused with copper can help keep you cool, and they may also relieve inflammation. Learn more about the best mattresses for arthritis.

Sleep Position

One final strategy is to rethink your sleep position. Proper posture (including neutral spine alignment) can help relieve inflammation and prevent stiffness in the morning. Many arthritis sufferers find that sleeping on their back is helpful, as well.

Summary

Arthritis can make it tougher to get the rest you need; what’s more, sleep deprivation can make those arthritis symptoms worsen. It’s a nasty cycle, but there are ways you can break it. Consider the sleep strategies that will enable you to get real, restorative rest.


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