Got back pain questions? Our Back Wellness Coaches have answers. Text Us Now at 412.419.2225. It's FREE!

How to Fight Insomnia to Get Better Sleep After Back Surgery

Published November 16, 2018     | Reviewed By Jerry Nichols, MD
The stress and pain of undergoing spine surgery is enough to make you want to sleep it off, but sometimes it can be almost impossible to fall or stay asleep. Nearly 25 percent of Americans experience acute insomnia every year and some are first affected after undergoing back surgery. If you're ready to get some quality sleep after back surgery, this article will teach you more about insomnia and how to manage it after back surgery.

What is insomnia

If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep after your back surgery you may have insomnia. According to the National Sleep Foundation, nearly two-thirds of all adults living with chronic pain reported discomfort as a reason for their insomnia. While it is common to have trouble sleeping right after surgery, some may suffer from insomnia for weeks or even months after back surgery.

There are two categories of insomnia:

  • Primary Insomnia is a type of insomnia that is not brought on by another health condition.
  • Secondary Insomnia occurs when you experience trouble falling asleep or staying asleep due to another health-related issue. Those that have difficulty sleeping after surgery could be suffering from secondary insomnia.


In addition to the two types of insomnia, this condition can be either long-term or short-term:

  • Chronic Insomnia is a long-term type of insomnia that affects people three or more times a week for months or longer. This insomnia is usually brought on by other conditions like depression, anxiety, stress, and pain.
  • Acute Insomnia is a short-term form of insomnia that lasts for a couple weeks at a time. This type of insomnia is more likely for those experiencing trouble sleeping after back surgery.


What causes insomnia after back surgery?


Patients undergoing back surgery may notice their sleeping problems are caused by several different factors. Those include:

  • General Anesthesia. Anesthesia can cause insomnia by disrupting your internal clock making it difficult to fall and stay asleep.
  • Pain and Discomfort. Falling asleep and staying asleep can be a challenge when dealing with back pain. Moving in your sleep can also cause additional pain that wakes you from a deep sleep.
  • Stress. Back surgery can take a toll on not only your body, but your mind. An increase in stress hormones can make it difficult to relax and sleep.
  • Medications. Side effects of some of your medications can keep you awake at night or make you sleepy throughout the day. Medications like steroids can affect your normal sleep schedule, causing insomnia after back surgery.
  • Schedule and environment. A common cause for insomnia after back surgery is being out of sync with your normal sleep schedule and day-to-day life. The hustle and bustle of the hospital can also keep you awake until you are comfortable in your own home.


“Our body is in trauma from the surgery, we have just had anesthesia administered and on top of that, most of the time after a back surgery we are prescribed some form of pain medication,” says Bill Fish, certified sleep science coach and founder of Tuck.com. “Throw all of those things together, and our normal schedule is put into disarray.”

Ways to manage insomnia after back surgery

Although you can experience insomnia at any and all stages of your recovery, patients most commonly have trouble sleeping directly after surgery. In fact, a study showed that 48 percent of patients reported pain as the cause for insomnia the first day after surgery. Fish mentions, “Unfortunately, insomnia is a common by-product of surgery, but the good news is that you should be past in within a few weeks.” So how can you manage your insomnia after back surgery and sleep better? Here are some tips on improving your sleep after surgery and how to help combat insomnia at all stages of your recovery.

Shortly After Surgery

Experiencing sleeping problems directly after back surgery is more common than any other stage of back surgery recovery. Factors like the interruption of your normal sleep schedule on top of your body’s pain and stress are usually the cause of sleeping problems shortly after surgery.

Preparing for your recovery before you undergo surgery is the first step in battling insomnia and ensuring you get the maximum amount of rest possible. Making sure you have the proper mattress and pillows to keep your spine supported and aligned can give you the extra comfort you need for a better night’s sleep. Create a relaxing atmosphere in your bedroom with extra pillows, cushioning, and other comfort items that will eliminate any unnecessary stress for the beginning of your recovery.

If you continue to experience insomnia because of back pain, changing your sleeping position can help. Certain sleeping positions, such as on your stomach, can place unwanted pressure on your spine while recovering from back surgery, causing more discomfort and pain. The best way for back surgery patients to sleep post-procedure is actually, on your back with your knees bent. This position relieves pressure and pain by supporting both the cervical and thoracic spine.

Weeks After Surgery

It is also important to re-establish your regular sleep schedule after back surgery as soon as possible to combat insomnia. Interruptions in your sleep schedule can happen from the anesthesia, while recovering in a busy hospital or from taking naps during the day which can temporarily throw off your internal clock.

Try creating and sticking to a schedule for naps and bedtime in order to get your sleep schedule on track. “The best thing you can do is try to get back to that normal routine, which isn’t going to be easy, especially if you are on bed rest. Do what you can to avoid napping during the day,” Fish advises. Be patient if you are still battling insomnia from your back surgery, your normal sleep schedule should return to normal within a few weeks.

In some cases, your prescribed medications can be making you tired throughout the day or interrupt your sleep schedule. If you believe your medication is causing your insomnia, Fish recommends to “do what you can to take any pain medicine roughly 30 minutes before going to sleep.”

Months After Surgery


If these options fail to improve your insomnia months after back surgery, a sleeping aid may be recommended by your doctor. Fish says, “If you get to a point where you feel your body and mind are totally healed, but you are still suffering from insomnia and it has been three to four weeks, it is a good idea to speak with with your physician.”

Several prescription medications can improve sleep and help treat chronic back pain as well as a natural sleeping aid like melatonin that can assist in falling and staying asleep. In some cases, insomnia can be caused by depression, anxiety or muscle spasms. Again, always talk to your doctor before starting any new sleep medication.

Conclusion

If you have recently had back surgery, or will in the future, it is possible that falling asleep and staying asleep can be a battle at any stage of your recovery. Patients who experience trouble sleeping after back surgery make up just a small part of the 25 percent of Americans that experience acute insomnia every year. Following tips like creating a comfortable environment and sticking to a sleep schedule among others can help manage your insomnia for a better recovery.  

Last change: November 29, 2018

Contributors and Experts

Bill Fish is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and co-founder of Tuck, a sleep-related health information website.