Getting a good night's sleep can be a challenge for anybody, but it's especially difficult after surgery.
Sleep is critical for healing after surgery and trauma, but it is almost impossible to attain quality sleep when in pain. There are specific regions of the brain that control pain and sleep, so when you feel pain, you don't get good quality sleep, and when you don't get quality sleep, you feel more pain. One study has shown that just two nights of partial sleep deprivation resulted in increased bodily pain even without any trauma. This effect multiplied with subsequent nights of partial sleep deprivation.
So how do you break this vicious cycle after surgery?
Deep breathing exercises: slow, deep breaths activate a branch of the nervous system known for 'rest and digest'. Several minutes of deep breathing can not only help your body relax but also lower your current blood pressure.
Finding the correct posture: this is especially important after a joint or back surgery. For example, people find placing a large and firm pillow between the knees - and sleeping on the unoperated side - more comfortable for surgery on the leg or hip. Additionally, sleeping on your back with a pillow placed under your knees is supportive. However, it's important to note, placing a pillow under the knee after knee surgery is NOT encouraged because you risk losing the ability to straighten your knee comfortably.
Note: Many people report pregnancy pillows to be particularly helpful for maximizing comfort.
Improve your sleep hygiene: establish a regular bedtime routine and stick to it! Start by reducing light and exposure to screens about 30 minutes before bedtime and tuck yourself in around the same time each night. Over time, your body will recognize the signals to wind down and allow you to fall asleep easier. Sometimes a low humming sound or other white noise can also help lull you to sleep.
Find the right temperature: keep your bedroom cool, about 65-68 degrees Fahrenheit and turn off any sources of light.
Medicinal sleep aids: melatonin is a hormone found naturally in our bodies. Darkness tends to increase melatonin production while light will break down the hormone and decrease production. Melatonin may be helpful to stimulate sleep in situations where time zones or other factors interfere with your regular sleep schedule. This article by WebMD summarizes the appropriate uses of melatonin.
1. Olson, Kern A. "Pain and sleep: Understanding the interrelationship. Practical pain management vol. 14,9 (2015). Retrieved 05/23/21 from: Pain and Sleep: Understanding the Interrelationship (practicalpainmanagement.com)
2. Finan, Patrick H et al. "The association of sleep and pain: an update and a path forward." The journal of pain vol. 14,12 (2013): 1539-52. doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2013.08.007 Retrieved 05/23/21 from: nihms521705.pdf