If you’ve ever noticed that, as soon as you slip under the covers at night, your body suddenly seems so uncomfortable—maybe it’s a throbbing hip, an ache in your low back, a stiff neck, or just a vague sensation of physical discontent—that you can’t fall asleep. Know that while it’s not normal, it is common to feel an uptick in aches and pain at night because of your circadian rhythms, according to sleep expert Carleara Weiss, PhD, RN.
Circadian rhythms are the natural, biological rhythms that regulate our physical, behavioral, and psychological functions in cycles that last approximately 24 hours. Although most people only associate circadian rhythms with the sleep-wake cycle, Dr. Weiss says they have a pivotal role in hormonal regulation, immune function, and pain regulation. “The circadian rhythm of pain interacts with the pain modulatory, endocrine, and immune systems,” she explains. “Recent research demonstrates higher responsiveness in these combined systems at night.”
Pain and physical discomfort are both considered significant sleep disruptors, and Dr. Weiss says the less sleep you get, the more severe both will feel. This is because a lack of sleep increases pain perception. This, in turn, can make you more sensitive to your physical discomfort.
Whether you’re in notable physical pain, or just can’t seem to get physically comfortable, exercise, amongst other things, can help immensely. Pain permitting, Dr. Weiss recommends going on a slow walk before bed, and she also says that while there’s limited scientific evidence that stretches done before bed that can reduce pain and improve sleep, sleep pros often prescribe certain moves for this exact purpose. “From a clinical standpoint,” she says, “we recommend back stretches on empirical evidence and patients’ reports.” Below are four she often suggests people add to their nighttime routines for more comfortable, quality zzzs.
4 stretches before bed to try when you can’t fall asleep
Start on all fours with your hands below your shoulders and your knees under your hips. On an exhale, tuck your tailbone, round your spine toward the ceiling, and lower your gaze to look at your thighs. This is your cat position. Then inhale, arching your back and letting your belly lower toward the floor while you lift your head and tailbone up towards the ceiling. This is the cow position. Complete 10–15 rounds.
Start kneeling on your bed with your big toes together, knees wide, and butt seated on heels. Walk your hands forward and lower your chest down until your forehead is resting on your mattress or a pillow, allowing your arms to stretch long in front of you, bringing biceps by ears. Inhale far a 4–6 count and exhale for a 6–8 count. Continue for 30–60 seconds.
3. Butterfly stretch
Start seated with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Allow your knees to fold open like a book and bring the soles of your feet together, close to your pelvis. To deepen the stretch, hold onto your feet and use your elbows to gently press your knees down as your hinge from the hips to lean or fold forward. To decrease the intensity, place pillows or blankets under your knees. Hold the stretch for 30–60 seconds.
4. Puppy pose
Start kneeling on all fours. Leave your hips over your knees as you walk your hands forward and lower your chest until your forward rests on your mattress or a pillow. Arms remain straight and biceps should be by ears, feeling a stretch along your entire spine, upper back, and shoulders. Hold for 30–60 seconds.
Exercising to ease sleep discomfort
While Dr. Weiss says there aren’t many studies showing that exercises performed in bed in the moments you can’t sleep will be immediately beneficial at alleviating your discomfort and lulling you to sleep, she says there is strong scientific evidence for exercise outside of bed being able to do just that. She suggests strength training, Pilates, core exercises, yoga, tai chi, passive and active stretching, and bodyweight exercises that increase strength, flexibility, and mobility.
“Exercise is an excellent alternative to achieving a healthier life and better sleep for everyone (with or without pain) and across different age groups,” she says. “It improves sleep quality and duration and may help you get more deep sleep.” But if you experience chronic pain, consult your healthcare provider for treatment.