Full-body tension while sleeping leads to hours of pain in the morning.
June 11, 2014 3:31 PM   Subscribe

At some point during the night I go from sleeping comfortably to being curled up in a tight little ball, resulting in pain and intense achy stiffness in the morning. If I have an obligation I just deal with it and get up. But on my days off I stay in bed, laying flat on my back, sleeping in 20-minute increments for another two hours or so, and by then the pain is gone and I finally feel rested. While that's nice, it doesn't help me on work days, and it means I don't wake up until about 10am on my days off, so I lose a big chunk of my morning.

Additional notes:
-No insomnia and no problems getting or staying asleep
-I'm in my mid-20's, and I've had this issue for as long as I can remember
-The pain, tension, and aches are primarily in my neck, head, shoulders, and the entirety of my back, but especially the middle. (This question deals mostly with jaw-clenching, which is not a problem for me)
-On days when I can't lay in bed and recover, the achiness takes 2-4 hours to work itself out.
-I'm not a high-stress or high anxiety person, but the tension is definitely much worse if I have an anxious dream.
-I have crummy health insurance, so I haven't been to and can't see a professional for this. Someday I will, but for now I'm just looking for personal experiences, advice, suggestions, or insights I may have missed. I know YANMD.

Thank you!
posted by possumbrie to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried yoga? I wonder if that would help after a little time.
posted by three_red_balloons at 3:35 PM on June 11, 2014

Are you getting cold at night, perhaps without realizing it? A friend of mine used to constantly wake up in the middle of the night, inexplicably freezing cold although he had been comfortable when he fell asleep. An electric blanket was a big help.
posted by muddgirl at 3:40 PM on June 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I had something similar. I would pull my arms up so tight that I'd wake up and they'd both have gone numb. What helped was getting neoprene elbow braces. It made bending the arms somewhat more difficult, and I learned to stop doing it.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 4:06 PM on June 11, 2014

I'm usually the guy recommending yoga, but something's wrong with your sleep here; this doesn't sound like garden variety stiffness, and while yoga might bring some relief of the symptoms, it won't address the central issue...whatever it is.

It certainly sounds like anxiety's involved, but tons of people have anxiety dreams without waking up with intense body pain/stiffiness. That's just not part of the equation, normally. My understanding is that there are natural processes suppressing body movement during dreams, and that some people lack this suppression. It may be that you have such an issue in combination with an underlying anxiety issue. I'd concentrate my search on sleep disturbance sites.

Important note: one's anxiety (especially as it exhibits at night) can be unconscious. You might be clenching the bejesus out of your teeth at night, and grinding, without knowing it. Similarly, your sleep could be packed with horrendous anxiety dreams, and you may only remember them occasionally [see footnote below]. And, overall, it is difficult to gauge whether you're a high-stress/high-anxiety person. You might just be a high-anxiety-repressing person - and it's starting to express at night. That said, while I suspect anxiety is a factor, I don't believe (I'm not a doctor) it could produce all these problems you're reporting. So, again: anxiety + sleep disorder.

Since you can't afford to treat a sleep disorder (though, again, do search the relevant sites on that), you might consider treating yourself as if you do have severe anxiety. Try daily exercise, walks, and either meditation, tai chi, or yoga. Limit alcohol. And be careful about keeping things non-stimulating and non-upsetting for a couple hours before bed (no "Hannibal"!). New mattress if you can afford it. Wash sheets and fluff pillows frequently if you can't.

Footnote: to understand how unconscious one's nighttime experiences can be, in 30 years or so, some of your friends will develop sleep apnea, where your throat essentially closes down with each breath cycle, causing you to choke and gasp for unavailable air each time you breathe. If that's ghastly-sounding, well, it is. And many (if not most) people with the condition - who are tortured by repetitive choking hundreds or thousands of times per night, even to the point where their blood oxygen levels plummet, and who may even briefly awaken each of the hundreds of times this happens - have no idea anything unusual is happening. They only notice they're sleepier than usual during the day, that's usually the sole tip-off. So don't assume you can gauge your anxiety level, or objectively evaluate what you're doing, dreaming, or experiencing.

Also: low budget idea: prop up a smart phone so it can record your body in bed. Sleep with a light on. And shoot away (maybe clear out some apps and photos so there's enough disk space, and turn off HD). Review video at high speed next day.
posted by Quisp Lover at 4:14 PM on June 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

My first thought was also that you may be getting cold after you're already asleep. Maybe try to add some blankets or warmer PJ's?

You may also want to try taking a magnesium supplement before bed as it can help to relax you. Don't take too much as you can give yourself diarrhea if you do. For me, about 400mg works well if my body or mind are stressed before bed.
posted by quince at 4:35 PM on June 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I also came in here to suggest a magnesium supplement, but quince beat me to it.
posted by mjcon at 4:40 PM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I suppose it's somewhat beside the point, since you say you're not in a place to see a doctor right now, but why are you so sure you're not clenching your jaw? You're asleep, after all. Waking up full of tension and ridden by head and neck pain that is worse after an anxiety dream and lessens over the course of the day sounds like classic TMJ to me. And there is a simple treatment, which is a mouth guard + muscle relaxers. If you can save up to get yourself to a cheap clinic and get a prescription, you might save yourself a lot in time & energy over the long term.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 4:45 PM on June 11, 2014

Quick notes
-I take magnesium daily to help with IBS symptoms, about 1,000mg. (Which sounds like a lot, but I do well on it.)
-I went through a very, very high-stress, high-anxiety period around a friend's death where I did clench and grind my teeth during sleep. I woke up with pain and stiffness in the jaw and in certain head muscles. As I don't experience that kind of pain, I'm apt to believe that jaw-clenching is not the major issue here.
-Lastly, most of the pain is in my middle back and shoulders. So things that are linked specifically to head pain are not likely to be the cause.
-Cold is not an issue either, we keep the house warm and I use an awesome down blanket at night. (But is it worth nothing that some of my best sleep has been on my back, topped by an enormous fluffy fake fur pillow? But that involves sleeping solo which causes a sad hubby.)

Thanks for everything so far! I've gotten more leads from this post than I've gotten from five years of googling.
posted by possumbrie at 4:52 PM on June 11, 2014

I also have middle back/shoulder/neck pain and although mine is caused more by injury and arthritis than stress, stress is also a big factor. Something that has helped a lot (aside from benzos) was getting a heated mattress pad, which I use even now in the summer on its lowest setting. I find it easier to relax more fully if my body doesn't have to worry about keeping itself warm, I guess? I keep the house fairly cold year round, though.

You can get ones which only heat your side of the bed, which is helpful for partners who do not want to deal with excessive bedtime toastiness.
posted by elizardbits at 5:09 PM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

-Cold is not an issue either, we keep the house warm and I use an awesome down blanket at night.

But you could still be clenching up because you're cold and not know it because you're asleep! Maybe you're kicking the covers off. Maybe awesome hubby is stealing them. Maybe you're body temp is just dropping far enough at night that even with the duvet, you're cold. Experiment with a longsleeve t-shirt or similar - whatever's warmer than what you currently wear - for a couple nights and see how it goes. Can't hurt and it's way cheap.
posted by rtha at 5:43 PM on June 11, 2014

Seconding Quisp Lover. When I read your question I also thought you might have some form of sleep apnea. If you can't afford a sleep study, it would be interesting to see if you could film yourself sleeping, or someone else could, just to see what may be going on that you may not be aware of.
posted by gudrun at 6:04 PM on June 11, 2014

Beyond a sleep study, I agree with the kicking off and clenching up when you are cold. I do it myself. I occasionally have the lower back pain, but if it continues IANYD... I'd look to some other problem and a professional. People are wonky, and we all have our little ticks. This might just be one of them.
posted by Benway at 6:31 PM on June 11, 2014

Do you have a good quality mattress? I found myself curling into odd positions in my sleep to deal with the lumps and dips in the mattress and getting a variety of pains as a result until I finally shelled out for a decent mattress. Plus good pillows that suit your preferred sleeping position.

Also, I get a bit of reflux/stomach issues that seem to prompt me rolling into a ball when asleep which in turn can give me some other aches and pains.
posted by AnnaRat at 7:12 PM on June 11, 2014

Is it possible that your husband is unintentionally pushing you into a corner in his sleep? How about your pillows? Have you tried changing to different types? If you sleep on your side have you tried sleeping with a pillow between your knees? The mattress is probably the most likely problem. What happens when you sleep in another bed? Even if it works fine for your husband it might not be right for you.
posted by mareli at 7:21 PM on June 11, 2014

I went through a very, very high-stress, high-anxiety period around a friend's death where I did clench and grind my teeth during sleep. I woke up with pain and stiffness in the jaw and in certain head muscles. As I don't experience that kind of pain, I'm apt to believe that jaw-clenching is not the major issue here.

Nobody's suggesting it's the major issue. But it could well be a contributing issue even if the pain feels different now than it was now. Stuff changes.

most of the pain is in my middle back and shoulders. So things that are linked specifically to head pain are not likely to be the cause.

Pain projects. Also, muscles in major spasm (which is what you're describing) can cause a slingshot situation where neighboring muscles also strain and go into spasm. The muscles that attach to your jaw connect directly to the area you're describing. Even if that didn't happen last time, it could this time. Again: stuff changes. You might not see that in your 20's, but you will over the next ten years, believe me. Body is not a consistent laboratory.

To restate: I don't think this is primarily a jaw problem. But I'd bet high that it's much/mostly an anxiety problem (currently beneath your radar), and jaw is a result...i.e. it's your bellwether. I'd treat myself as if I was in deep stress even if I didn't feel stressed. At very least, you'll grant that these symptoms are stressing you, so any way you want to slice the cause/effect leads to the same conclusion: address stress.

I'm not sure if you read to the bottom of my posting, but it included a cheap way to help self-observe.
posted by Quisp Lover at 7:22 PM on June 11, 2014

This wouldn't get at the root cause, but in the interim, could you set your alarm for two hours before you normally are supposed to get up? Then you could have the two hours of removing-the-aches sleeping every day. I realise this is non-ideal but it might be better than the current state, at least while you're working on solving the underlying problem.
posted by forza at 7:29 PM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I used to sleep on my stomach, a physiotherapist suggested pinning a tennis ball in a sock to the front of my t-shirt so I wouldn't roll over that way in my sleep and it worked. More recently, a sleep doctor had me do it on my back and that worked, too. Maybe you could stuff a couple tennis balls along-side either hip in a pair of bike shorts to keep you on your back without the big fur pillow?

Actually, the pillow makes me think that maybe it's about having some weight on you. I can't figure out why the fake fur pillow and the husband are incompatible, but if that's the case, you could find another way to weigh yourself down. Maybe a weighted blanket? When I went through a particularly stressful time, my yoga teacher used to put 10 lb sandbags on my legs and arms and across my hips during savasana and the weight of it pushing me into the floor was the most relaxing thing ever.
posted by looli at 7:55 PM on June 11, 2014

Do you fall asleep on your side? If so, find a full length yoga bolster or body pillow. Hold it against you in a stretched out position. When you roll over at night, bring it with you.

I slept poorly when I used this technique to stop my top leg from flopping over mid-line but it worked in a week.

Other techniques include pillow between knees and in your case probably ankles. Hold the pillows together while you sleep.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:53 PM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I used to have this problem a lot when I slept on my side. I had to switch to sleeping on my back due to a neck issue, and it's gotten a lot better. I think on my back I am not able to clench into a little ball.
posted by radioamy at 9:22 PM on June 11, 2014

Have you tried a mouth guard designed to stop you from grinding your teeth at night? You can get a super excellent expensive one custom made through your dentist, or a fit-it-yourself using boiling water mouth guard bought at a pharmacy for much less.

The trick to tolerating the funny thing in your mouth as you try to drop off to sleep is to suck on it. Tooth grinding and jaw clenching could be causing neck pain and the neck pain causing you to curl up in a tight ball, maybe.

Alternatively you could be bothered by sore joints that are sore just because. I would definitely take me to the pharmacy and pick up a bottle of ibuprofen (Tylenol or Paracetamol) for arthritis. This is minimum dose, slow release stuff. You are supposed to take two tablets every eight hours, but just one tablet before bed makes a considerable difference to how stiff achy and sore I feel when I wake up in the morning. I don't have to do it every night. I find doing it once makes the problem go away for several days. I get morning achy stiffness and waking up with pins and needles in my arms from sleeping on them which is not quite the same as you have however.

Have you tried using a hot shower, as hot as you can stand either before bed or after? I would try the hot shower in the morning if you have not already. You can do gentle martial arts stretches after a minute or two under the hot water jet without getting out from under the water.

I am guessing that the curling up and the stiffness is getting triggered at some particular place in your sleep cycle. It could be at the deep sleep peak where your immune system is most active if the problem is arthritic, or at one of the places where the temperature cycling during sleep hits a peak of either hot or cold. For some people those cycles are quite extreme. If you have a bed partner they may be able to give you some information.

Are there any pets in the bedroom when you sleep? If the cat is trying to settle down for some quality companionable snooze time right on your sternum you may be curling up in self defense to get away from the cat.

Finally I am going to suggest some auto-suggestion. Quite often your unconscious brain is susceptible to suggestion if you give it some confident instructions as you start falling asleep. (This is the trick you use to ensure that you wake up at six A.M. when you don't have an alarm clock, or to trigger lucid dreaming or to remember you dreams when you wake up.) Firmly and repeatedly tell yourself that when you tense up in your sleep you will notice you did it and will uncurl and relax. This is most effective it it is the last thought you have before you drift off and least effective if you stay awake for another twenty minutes thinking unrelated thoughts after you give yourself the instructions.

If you need help with the auto-suggestion technique go to the library and get out a book on self hypnosis. Just before sleep auto-suggestion is a form of self hypnosis. If the anxious dreams trigger the stiffness rather than the other way round, you can also try telling yourself that you will have good relaxing dreams. Remember to be positive, not negative, so don't say "I will not tense up. I will not have bad dreams" but so say "When I begin to tense up I will notice the tension and I will immediately stretch out and relax. I will have fun, comforting dreams."
posted by Jane the Brown at 3:10 AM on June 12, 2014

A heated mattress pad may soothe some of the tension and muscle knots.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:15 AM on June 12, 2014

Maybe try a mattress topper filled with down, which are usually $75- $85 here in Ontario. As for magnesium, I'd recommend magnesium malate specifically. The combination with malic acid makes a huge amount of difference. As one of my fellow fibromyalgia sufferers said to me: "You can feel the pain and tension melting away." It's really wonderful and it helps me sleep despite chronic pain that otherwise turns my muscles into knotted, tense awfulness by morning. I have to get it from eBay. Conventional magnesium supplements from the pharmacy aren't the same.

If it helps, I'm not into naturopathy or herbal remedies at all, really, being a skeptic, and this stuff really is that good.
posted by quiet earth at 7:54 PM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Over the next few months I'm going to try the remedies mentioned in the responses I marked as "best." Thank you for all of your suggestions and insight, everyone!
posted by possumbrie at 11:27 AM on June 18, 2014

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