If you treat patients with neuropathy and pain, you’re probably very familiar with complaints about lack of sleep, trouble staying asleep, and general restlessness at night.  It’s hardly surprising, given the intensity of many neuropathic conditions, that they make it tough to rest.  Insomnia (lack of sleep) affects almost half of the overall population, but among neuropathy sufferers, that ratio jumps to over seventy percent (according to the Journal of Pain Medicine). Experts recommend between seven and nine hours of sleep for most adults, regardless of their age or gender, an intimidating goal for people whose chronic pain keeps them up at night.
Research suggests that sleep apnea, a common cause of insomnia, can actually cause peripheral neuropathy, as well. Beyond a mere relationship, studies have shown that apnea is a high-risk condition among the insulin-resistant, which could likely be affecting incidents of neuropathy among diabetics in very direct ways. Some doctors have reported that treating patients with obstructive sleep apnea has actually helped their cold or numb extremities recover, indicating another condition (possibly Raynaud’s phenomenon) masquerading as neuropathy.  If patients suffer from sleep apnea, CPAP treatment may be a viable avenue to explore to address their tingling or loss of sensation.
Regardless of the root cause, your patients’ pain can intensify in the evening hours, both in reality and in their own perception (fewer distractions of the day can cause a patient to focus more on their pain the closer they get to bedtime).
Insomnia from neuropathy can perpetuate its own problem, too.  Not only is your patients’ neuropathy prodigious when it comes to nighttime restlessness, but the resulting lack of sleep can make the pain even worse!  Rest is essential to recovery and treatment, and a patient’s lack of sleep can lower their pain threshold drastically.  Take into consideration that insomnia, diabetes, and other imbalances related to neuropathy can also contribute to high stress, depression, and mood disorders, and your treatment plan become that much more complicated.
If you’re treating patients whose insomnia could be caused by neuropathy (or vice-versa), NeuropathyDR® can provide the tools and information you need to help them get a good night’s sleep.  Specifics vary from patient to patient, of course, but here are some general guidelines that might be useful:

  • Instruct them to keep a regular sleeping schedule.  Getting to bed and getting up at the same times each day is one of the best ways for them to teach their body to sleep correctly.
  • Patients should limit their intake of caffeine and any medication that incorporates a stimulant, especially in the evening hours.
  • Avoiding heavy foods in the evening is important.  Metabolism continues hours after we eat, and the resultant energy boost can be bad for sleep.  Many cultures eat their biggest meal of the day in the morning and only a small snack at dinnertime for this reason.
  • Turning off the TV and computer a few hours before bed is a good idea.  Mileage varies from person to person, but electronics tend to stimulate the senses.  Suggest a book or quiet conversation, instead.
  • Counsel patients to adjust their environment to be ideal for sleeping.  They should layer covers to ensure they stay warm but not hot, and should minimize light and noise.

In addition to great care from you as a first line, there are a number of herbal and natural sleep aids as well, which may help insomniacs fall asleep quickly.  Sleep expert Elizabeth Shannon recommends entertaining a number of stress-relief methods, psychological conditioning, and homeopathic solutions for insomnia before resorting to pharmaceutical sleep aids, which can often form dependencies and, over time, exacerbate the problems associated with restlessness.
Of course, for severe chronic pain, prescription medications may be necessary.  Ultram, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and acetaminophen, codeine, and morphine might be used in more extreme cases. Some antidepressants or anticonvulsants could be valuable as well, depending on the specific symptoms your patient is presenting.  Benzodiazepine and nonbenzodiazepine anti-anxiety medication is also occasionally helpful, again, depending on specific symptoms.  If you have questions about pharmaceutical sleep aids, NeuropathyDR® can help provide guidance for you.
Be sure to remind patients that altering their sleep pattern won’t happen overnight (so to speak)!  It could be three to four weeks before any changes made to their routine begin to have meaningful impact on their success.  Often, since changes in routine can be unsettling in themselves, restlessness can become worse before it gets better.  Contact NeuropathyDR® and we can give you even more information about how to help your patients suffering from neuropathy to get the rest they need.

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