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It's not just you—sleep after surgery is tough.

At PeerWell, we know how hard surgery recovery can be. That's why we created our PreHab and ReHab programs to support you every step of the way. And after treating thousands of patients, one topic remains among the most asked about: sleep after surgery.

In this article, PeerWell's occupational therapist, Karen Dwyer, has put together a list of tips and tricks she shares with our patients to sleep after a taxing surgery.

Beat insomnia and sleepless nights with the techniques below!  

18 ways to sleep better after surgery:

1. Cultivate good pre-surgery sleep habits

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Get into a good sleep habit before surgery.

It may sound strange, but before surgery it's important to improve your sleep fitness. Establish a regular bedtime and try to go to bed at that time each night. An hour before bed, spend time reading or another calming, low-light activity.

2. Get creative with pillows

food prep
Good sleep gear makes all the difference.

Whether it’s an orthopedic pillow or an adjustable bed frame, a little modification can make a big difference when it comes to sleep. If your surgeon approves, add a pillow under your surgery area. This can make it more comfortable and also reduce swelling. Your surgeon or physical therapist can also recommend special positions for sleep depending on your surgery.

 

3. Use ear plugs or an eye mask

Noise and light leads to restless, worse-quality sleep.

Test out using ear plugs or an eye mask. You might be surprised by how much less light and fewer noises can improve your nightly sleep.

 

4. Keep a journal

Using yoga and walking for back pain
Rumination and worry keeps us awake at night.
Here’s a great, effective tip: Keep a journal or notebook close to your bed. If you find yourself thinking too much, take one to five minutes to write down what you’re thinking about. You’ll be surprised by how such a small trick can make such a big difference.  If you find yourself ruminating often, talking to a certified therapist can help.  Click here to schedule a free 15-minute appointment with a PeerWell Health specialist.  

5. Make tomorrow’s to-do list before bed

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Take 5 minutes to write down 3 tasks you want to accomplish tomorrow.

By writing down your key tasks for tomorrow, you free up your brain for sleep. Choose the top three to four things you want to tackle tomorrow. Don't add more than four, or it'll feel overwhelming. By writing down your to-do items, you remove them from your mental checklist and offload them onto paper or your phone– allowing your mind and body to rest. 

6. Refine your sleep space

Is moving bad for back pain? Runner prepares
Create a dim, quiet sleep environment.

Aim to sleep in total darkness and silence. A black out curtain can be great. Add dark tape over lights and other electronics in your bedroom. Ambient noise or white noise can help drown out noises, if you’re a light sleeper. Put your phone on airplane mode and face down so it doesn’t wake you up.

 

7. Test out a chair

Pregnant woman sitting with back pain
With some surgeries, a chair might help with sleep.

After a rotator cuff repair, SLAP repair or other shoulder surgery, a recliner chair can be more comfortable than a bed. Ask your surgeon, physical therapist and occupational therapist for advice on how to best sleep following your specific surgery. Pillows can also work as props to help with sleeping on a bed.

8. Have a soothing cup of tea

Enjoy a relaxing cup of tea.

Teas without caffeine, such as chamomile, can help you feel sleepy. Some herbal teas are sold specifically for sleep and have herbs that promote sleepiness, such as valerian root, lavender, lemon balm, chamomile, passionflower or magnolia bark.

     

9. Spritz some lavender

Studies show that lavender improves sleep quality.

Add 2-3 drops of lavender to a spritz bottle with water or an essential oil diffuser. Spritz onto your pillow or sheets. You can also add 2-3 drops to hot bath water. Don't apply essential oils directly to your skin if you have sensitive skin or aren't sure how your skin will react.

10. Take a hot bath

sitting cause back pain
If your surgeon approves, take a hot bath.

Bathing after surgery depends on your surgery and surgeon. If you're allowed, taking a hot bath can help you get sleepy, groggy, and unplug before bed. Add in a few drops of lavender oil to your bath for extra relaxation.

 

11. Practice yoga nidra

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Yoga nidra helps you slow down and chill out. 

Yoga nidra has been shown in some studies to improve sleep quality and duration when practiced right before bedtime. There are a lot of yoga nidra apps and online videos for free.

12. Sleep when tired

Nap throughout the day.

In the early stages of surgery recovery, a lot of energy is going to healing, which can make you feel tired. Catching a quick nap or 3 during these initial days is a good idea! Napping when you're tired also makes sure you don't end up exhausted too early in the day or with an altered sleep schedule.

13. Plan your pain meds

meditation for back pain
Avoid mid-sleep wake ups.

If you're like many post-surgery, you might have medication that needs to be taken every 8 hours. Try to set yourself up for fewer mid-evening wake ups by scheduling your meds around your ideal sleep schedule.

 

14. Try melatonin

Melatonin can help sleep quality.

Melatonin is a hormone made in the body, and production is triggered by darkness. Used by people with jet lag or insomnia, melatonin supplements can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more thoroughly. Although safe and effective, any drug and supplement can interact with your other drugs and supplements. Ask your doctor if your current pain and other medications would allow you to take melatonin for sleep.

15. Skip big meals and caffeine before bed

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Big meals and caffeine disrupt sleep.

Don't have any caffeine (tea, coffee, chocolate, energy drinks) after 2pm, if you have trouble getting to sleep. Avoid a big, late-night meal. Digestion can cause worse sleep. What's more, late night eating can cause bothersome acid reflux if you lay down too soon after a meal.   

16. Make sure you're not hungry

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Grumbly tummies aren't good for sleep.

If you're hungry before bed, eat a light 100-200 calorie snack. Some fruit, nuts or a glass of milk are a good choice to avoid ending up either too full or too empty before bed time.     

17. Drink water before 5pm

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Stay hydrated after surgery (but don't drink before bed).

After surgery, try to get 10 cups of water a day. This will help your body filter out toxins and stay hydrated post-surgery. Aim to drink most of your water in the morning or in the early afternoon. Right after you wake up is a great time to have 2-3 cups of water. Not only will it help you stay hydrated, drinking water in the morning is an easy way to wake up bright eyed and bushy tailed.

18. Use sleep meditation and deep breathing

meditation for back pain
Choose a guided meditation from your PeerWell program.

We know pain and stress are a big deal post-surgery. That's why our app is full of helpful meditation and breathing exercises to help you handle stress, sleep, pain and other emotional and mental bumps along the road that is surgery. 

Takeaway:

Sleeping enough is key for recovery. For a better sleep, make your bedroom a relaxing, light and noise-free zone, find ways to unplug mentally and be smart about late-night eating and drinking routines.

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