Getting a good night’s sleep can seem like an impossible dream for those in chronic pain. And to make matters worse, the situation tends to worsen over time, resulting in a never-ending pain/insomnia cycle. The pain causes sleep deprivation, which in turn weakens the body’s natural pain control mechanisms — leading to more pain and more insomnia.
Since medication is not recommended for long-term use, researchers from the University of Alberta have been exploring low-cost, alternative therapies to help people with chronic pain get better sleep.
Their findings show that self-administered hand shiatsu—a Japanese form of massage, similar to acupressure — can help people in pain fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep for a longer period of time.
Shiatsu is a century-old massage technique in which the practitioner stimulates the patient’s acupressure points to relieve pain and stress. This is believed to balance and free the flow of chi, or ‘life force,’ energy in the body. During self-administered shiatsu, you simply perform the techniques on yourself.
For the study, nine people suffering from chronic pain were trained in hand shiatsu techniques to perform just before bed. At the two week and eight week follow-ups, the participants reported that they were falling asleep faster and sleeping longer as well. In fact, many participants said they had a hard time staying awake during shiatsu and would actually fall asleep before they had finished the treatment.
The researchers note that the strong mental attention needed for shiatsu may be enough in itself to help people fall asleep faster—there simply is no mental space left for negative thoughts (often a part of insomnia).
"One of the barriers to falling asleep for people who have pain is they worry about what's going to happen and while you're laying there you're thinking about all these negative things, it occupies your attention," says Cary Brown, an associate professor of occupational therapy in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. "This relates to research on attention in cognitive theory."
Given the small size of the study, the researchers aren’t able to make grand conclusions just yet, but the results are very promising and have paved the way for more research.
For patients suffering from chronic low back pain and other musculoskeletal injuries, the only thing that matters is finding something that works, Brown says. Not only does sleep deprivation lower a person's pain threshold, it also affects overall health. Sleep-deprived people are at increased risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even traffic accidents.