Topics: Research, Paralysis, Health & Exercise

Having Trouble Sleeping? New Study Says Paralysis Might Be to Blame

For many people with spinal cord injuries, sleep remains ever elusive. Ask a room full of people with spinal cord injuries how good their usual sleep is at night; you'll probably get answers like this:

  • around 20 to 30% say their sleep is good at night
  • the rest will be 70 to 80% saying that they’ve struggled with sleep since their injury

Many people report experiencing insomnia shortly after having their spinal cord injury, and for many, it never goes away. Interestingly, a brand new study out of the University of Texas at Austin has found that there may be some evidence to back up what people with spinal cord injuries have been reporting all along. Sleep and spinal cord injuries just don’t like each other.

Until this recent study, spinal cord injury doctors and nurses chalked up the mass insomnia among people with spinal cord injuries as a natural side effect of living with paralysis. Not being able to get comfortable in bed, not being able to shift yourself, and not being able to regulate your temperature can make it very hard to sleep. But now it seems there's a direct correlation between the brain and the damaged area of the spinal cord directly affecting the body's ability to sleep.

What they found was fascinating. After studying injured rats, they began to see that the circadian system in the body, which regulates the entire body's ability to sleep and then stay awake during a 24-hour cycle, is heavily affected by paralysis. They also looked at the hormone levels in the rats, which can affect this system as well. They found that hormones being unable to regulate the body’s temperature along with the lack of movement together resulted in widespread disruption throughout the body’s natural rhythm.

Now that scientists have discovered that SCI can indeed cause insomnia, they hope to study this phenomenon and prevent it from happening in people with spinal cord injuries in the future. Studying the body’s inner clock is called "chronotherapy," and science hopes to restore a normal body rhythm to people with paralysis. Eating healthy food regularly, sleeping on a regular schedule as much as possible, working out/exercise, and getting enough daylight can also help.

It is a wonderful thing that doctors are finally researching further into this issue. Too long people with spinal cord injuries have had to suffer from insomnia, thinking it is a lifelong issue they have no choice but to live with. In the meantime, while we wait for a treatment, if you struggle with insomnia and have a spinal cord injury, remember the following tips to help yourself get better sleep with an SCI:

  • Always have a fan blowing on you to prevent your body from overheating,
  • Expose a little bit of leg to prevent your body from overheating,
  • An electric neck warmer or electric blanket can help you warm up when you first get into bed,
  • Melatonin is a natural supplement that can help you sleep,
  • CBD is another supplement that is now legal in many states that can also help with insomnia.

To learn more about the study from the University of Texas at Austin, click hereWhat helps you sleep? Share with the SpinalCord community by commenting below.

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Tiffiny Carlson

Written by Tiffiny Carlson

Since 1998, Tiffiny Carlson has been a prolific commentator on all things SCI in a number of prominent magazines, blogs and websites. Hailing from Minnesota, she was the SCI Columnist for New Mobility Magazine for 13 years and she currently works as the Executive Director of SPINALpedia, one of the leading websites for people with SCI to share videos and stories. She has been a C5-6 quadriplegic since a diving accident 24 years ago. Tiffiny has also been a fierce advocate for SCI research. In 2016, the Morton Paralysis Fund honored her for her work. While all SCI topics interest her, dating, love and the business of relationships have always been where her passion lies the most.

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