disability and sleep disorder
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Nearly 20% of the global population has a sleep disorder. Sleep disorders can be debilitating themselves, and sleep disorders make other conditions worse.  With our daily patterns and routines disrupted, the only thing that would be surprising would be if our sleep cycles weren’t affected by our disabilities!

Why is sleep so important?

When you are asleep, your body focuses on healing and balancing itself.  It is also a time for your brain to process the emotions you have been through recently, and give you perspective on them through dreams.  Sleep has also proven itself to be biologically necessary and one of the more basic and vital parts of living a healthy life.  People do have their own natural rhythms, some people being naturally early risers, others naturally tending to stay up late.  Each person also has their own natural amount of sleep required per night, but in general, that amount is in the 7-8 hour range.  There are also other sleep patterns that are more cultural, such as sleeping occurs in two shifts.  No matter what the patterns though, the scientific consensus is that sleep is essential for our survival.

What is the relationship between disability and sleep disorders?

It’s hard to get enough sleep when you are injured or sick!

When people are sick or injured, the need for sleep often goes up dramatically, as the body needs more time and energy to devote to healing and rebalancing itself.  So while sleep has always been an important part of a healthy life, it is often even more important for newly injured or disabled people, and those living with chronic conditions.

The details vary from person to person, but overall there are a variety of sleep dysfunctions that can occur.  For some people with severe sleep dysfunction, that is their disabling condition.

For most of us, any sleep dysfunction we may have had prior to the onset of disability or injury is likely to be magnified by our illness or injury.

There are also a variety of mental health disorders that tend to have disruptive effects on sleep patterns, such as depression or anxiety.

Also, simply having an increase in emotional or physical stress in your life(which a new condition pretty much guarantees) can often knock sleeping patterns out of whack.

Many illnesses and injuries have disrupted the body in such a way that more sleep than usual may be necessary for healing, so even if your sleeping patterns don’t change much, you may actually need more sleep to feel rested.  Also, the injury or illness itself will frequently cause pain, which makes getting high-quality sleep more challenging.

The more severe the decrease in quality or quantity of sleep, the less healing benefit we receive during our sleep.  This can become a pretty damaging cycle pretty easily, with pain or stress causing or increasing the effect of sleep dysfunctions, and those dysfunctions slowing the rate or quality of healing our bodies experience.

The slowed healing, of course, extends the pain and stress- which slows the healing. This is a cycle that you don’t want to fall into, and one that you want to get out of as quickly as possible.

Everybody’s sleep patterns and needs are different

The first thing to recognize is that while it is necessary to get high-quality sleep, and that good hygiene practices help with it – that does not mean that there is one correct way to go about getting a good night’s sleep.

These all started from the same seeds and were planted at the same time – but look at the variety of colors and sizes! Like them, your sleep needs and patterns are unique and beautiful onto themselves

There are some pretty consistent things that generally help, but you do need to take your own history of natural sleep inclinations to heart in this process as well.

For example, if you have always tended to stay awake late into the night, and feel like you do your best work and thinking after many people go to bed, you likely don’t want to start waking up and going to bed very early.  If you find yourself wide awake bright and early in the morning, you may want to plan on going to sleep earlier in the night so you feel refreshed when you wake up.

Also, while many information sources may mention ‘a good 8 hours of sleep’ as the healthy number, the truth is that people’s sleep needs also has a range, with the average being about 8 hours.  Some people naturally need only 6 or 7 hours a night, and other people naturally need closer to 9 or 10.

Generally speaking, you need more sleep when you are dealing with any form of trauma or illness.  After suffering a TBI, Al spent most of his first post-injury week sleeping, waking up basically to take pain meds, eat and drink a little, and go to the bathroom.  As he recovered, he discovered that he needed closer to 8 or 9 hours of sleep a night, instead of the 6 or 7 that he had needed previously.

I have had times where I just needed 11 or so hours of sleep a night every night, for months, and had to adjust my sleep expectations.

To add insult to injury, many disabilities make both getting to sleep and staying asleep more challenging.  Many mental health issues make sleep more difficult through increased emotional stress and/or by disrupting your natural hormone levels and breaking up your standard sleeping patterns.

I have gone through periods of anxiety where sleeping more than 3 straight hours just seemed impossible, and months at a time where I averaged about 6 hours of sleep most nights.

Many conditions often also include pain and chronic pain issues, which also increases stress, and makes both falling and staying asleep more challenging.  Al is managing that now,

So while it might have been useful but not necessary to have good sleep patterns before the onset of your disability, you simultaneously need more high quality sleep, and sleeping at all is often more challenging.

Conclusion: disability and sleep disorders

Some sleep disorders cause or contribute to disabilities.  Many disabilities and their symptoms cause or contribute to sleep disorders.  Sleep is an essential part of your healing process, so getting a good night’s sleep is an essential part of your self-care.  It is possible, even likely, that your condition or its symptoms will disrupt your sleep patterns and cause new or additional sleep issues, and all you can do is muddle through, trying to find the best way to make sure you get enough sleep each night.  To do this, be aware of your own sleep patterns and sleep habits.  When needed, adjust them to help yourself get more and higher-quality sleep.  Medications can be a useful treatment in the short term to help you break negative patterns, but if possible find more natural sleep supports so you will have a more restful natural sleep.  Sleep is such an essential part of self-care – please make sure you do your best to get as good a night’s sleep as possible every day!



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  1. I am learning more about the type of sleep we need. I didn’t realize that it’s only in the deep sleep time that our cells do their healing. That’s tough for many with chronic illness or disabilities because we are generally light sleepers, yet we need the deep sleep to regenerate and heal.

    1. The whole sleep cycle is fascinating, and the ways that it can go wrong is pretty disturbing. Sleep is so vital for our health and yet so easily knocked out offbeat.

      I know that I tend to be a heavy sleeper, but I also know that pain and other disruptive events that accompany chronic illness often make deep sleep harder to achieve and maintain. There’s so much still to understand about sleep and sleep needs – and studying sleep issues and dysfunctions seems to be the best way for doctors and scientists to best understand it!

  2. It’s interesting to read this and now consciously think how it’s so important to adjust our “sleep expectation”. Despite having had chronic conditions for over 25years – I very rarely have managed to “allow” myself to sleep based on my needs that day because  if I sleep what I need I usually develop a migraine because I haven’t had food in my system and it also increases POTS symptoms so to avoid that, I can’t seem to listen to my sleep.

    But now I will give this more thought and see where I do need to adjust – this post was really helpful for me to realise that. Thank you Alison. 

    1. Shruti,
      So glad it was helpful! I tend to focus on getting to bed/sleep by a reasonable time, and generally don’t set an alarm or anything, so I wake up whenever my body decides to. With the concerns you have, maybe experiment with two sleep times. I have gone through periods where I slept for only a few hours at a time, but did two to three ’rounds’ of sleeping. I also have heard of people taking naps in the afternoon so they could balance their sleep needs that way.
      There are a lot of options- I hope you find the right one for you!

  3. My sleep has definitely been impacted by chronic pain and itching of late. And the meds that help also impact this cycle with the drowsiness etc. Hopefully the cycle breaks soon…sleep is so vital for healing!

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