The importance of Good Sleep to help with Musculoskeletal Problems.
Every time a patient comes to me complaining about sleep disturbance, that becomes our first treatment priority. Though medication can help with this, most of my clients and I prefer to explore more natural sleep solutions before trying medications. There is no doubt that pain, especially at night, can feel incredibly hard to deal with. The bottom line is when we do not sleep, we feel worse. I firmly believe that a large portion of our healing happens at night. This theory is widely supported by research and literature which argues the vital link between healing and protein synthesis, which mostly occurs at night. There is plenty of emerging research to highlight the importance of sleep in the process of neuroplasticity and the linking of synapses from memory, particularly during the third stage of sleep. That is, in fact, what sleep is designed for; to help us rest and repair. Immune function is also enhanced, achieving an important balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems at night.
In this article, I am going to provide an overview of the stages of sleep and the importance attached to each of these phases. In a second article, followed by this one, I will expand on that basic information and put some practical strategies in place (what I call ‘sleep hygiene’) to help you achieve better sleep and greater healing.
What happens when we go to sleep?
Sleep can be divided into non-Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and REM sleep. Each cycle within the sleep complex serves a particular function and is characterised by various physiological characteristics.
The cycle of sleep involves 3 stages of non-REM sleep followed by a final stage of REM sleep. A full cycle will take about 90 minutes to complete. Most adults will finish the full cycle of sleep 4 to 5 times a night. With each subsequent sleep cycle, we spend more time in REM sleep.
Non- REM sleep
This stage involves the change from being awake to sleeping. This phase lasts about 7-10 minutes and is associated with the transition from Beta wavelength functioning to Alpha wavelength (8-13 Hz) through to slower Theta wavelengths (4-7 Hz). The heart rate slows as well as your breathing. Eye movements slow down and muscles relax but still exhibit some twitching.
This stage is often referred to as light sleep, just before you enter deep sleep. The heart rate and breathing slow even more and your muscles benefit from a deeper relaxation. Body temperature drops and eye movements slow. This stage of sleep is dominated by Theta wavelengths (4 to 8 Hz) but interspersed with higher frequency bursts (sleep spindles and k complexes). These higher frequency bursts are said to be associated with learning and memory. You spend more time in this sleep than in any other phase.
This is sometimes subdivided into phase 3 and 4. This is the deepest part of sleep and dominated by low-frequency Delta waves (lower than 4 Hz).
As the name suggests this stage of sleep is principally associated with rapid eye movement. As this stage of sleep is associated with dreaming, there is a significant deal of muscle relaxation to prevent arm and leg movements from waking us up. The brain wave activity is very much like it would be during wakefulness.
Why does knowing about sleep help?
Particularly in dealing with insomnia and sleep disturbances, a basic knowledge of sleep anatomy is very useful. It will help you develop strategies to enhance the quality of your sleep. I encourage the use of music to reproduce the natural rhythm of our sleep cycle throughout various stages of the day. This is called entrainment (the study of music from a biological perspective) and claims for it’s potential have considerable merit. Many people find great benefit from using music and or relaxation or mindfulness techniques to support everyday function.
A future post will explore these methods further and also discuss some tips and thoughts on helping you get a better nights sleep.
Written by Ian Harris ( Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist)