Can proper sleep heal sports injuries?
Regardless of whether you are an amateur sports aficionado or you are training tirelessly with your gaze set on that gold medal, there is one thing to remember: high-intensity physical activity makes you more prone to sports injuries in comparison to those busy bees that do not have time to do sports.
Sports injuries are quite common, and they are more prevalent in younger adults and children. It comes as no surprise that almost a third of all of our injuries incurred in our childhood and youth come as a result of playing sports. According to Johns Hopkins (2019), the most common sports injuries are sprains and strains.
Most hospital visits come from those that play contact sports such as football or basketball. Even if you are an avid swimmer you do not get a hall pass that somehow magically protects you from injuries – muscle and tissue trauma is always lurking around the corner.
We decided to dedicate an article to one of the best (and most overlooked) cures to sports injuries – sleep. Keep reading as we investigate why sleep is so essential to maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle and ensuring a speedy recovery from sports-related injuries.
What science tells us about sleep and injuries
As you grow older, your body's capacity to recover and spring back faster progressively declines. This is a natural consequence of ageing. Over time, you might notice a decrease in the strength of your muscles and your body will show obvious signs of wear and tear. This natural process opens the Pandora’s box of injuries and pain.
Studies (McClure et al., 2014) show that regardless of whether you are a child, an adolescent, or a high-performing professional athlete, lack of sleep and an improper sleeping schedule are one-way tickets to sports-related injuries.
Are you establishing a vicious circle?
The lack of sleep and an improper sleeping schedule can lead to sports injuries. There is an interesting pattern developing here – naturally, these injuries are harder to heal because of that same lack of sleep or a fragmented sleeping schedule that helped cause them in the first place.
Even strong-willed army recruits displayed an improvement in their performance and exhibited a lower degree of mood disturbance when given just around 30 minutes of extra sleep time (Miller et al., n.d.).
Sleep can help cure your injuries and here’s how
As you fall asleep and enter the deeper stages of sleep, you enter a phase in which your muscles experience a surge in blood flow that provides the necessary nutrients that feed the muscle cells and help regenerate and heal efficiently.
Without adequate sleep, especially if you suffer from a highly patterned, broken sleep, the effectiveness of this delicate process is disturbed causing your muscles to suffer the consequences.
When your body enters a deep stage of sleep that we call non-REM sleep, growth hormones are released by the pituitary gland. These hormones help stimulate your muscles to grow and repair. Interrupting this natural process in your body will surely cause a decline in the secretion of growth hormones and as a consequence lead to a slower recovery (Dikmen & Schwab, 2021).
Sleeping checklist: the dos and don’ts
Sleep plays a crucial role in your overall health and maintaining a good sleeping pattern decreases the chances of injuries to your musculoskeletal system that includes bones, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, and connective tissues.
The experts agree that we cannot easily find a one-size-fits-all solution to sleep, there are some tips and tricks that you can introduce to your individualized plan.
#1 Do not forget the pillow
You might have overlooked and underestimated the key ingredient to a good night’s sleep - your pillow.
It matters what you rest your head on. Regardless of whether you are a stomach sleeper, a side sleeper, or a back sleeper if you do not get that sense of comfort and the perfect balance between softness and support then your body will not feel comfortable enough to fall asleep.
Finding the perfect pillow is one of the most overlooked things when it comes to proper sleep hygiene. Rather than just finding a plump-looking pillow with a rounded top, find a pillow that complements the weight of your head and cradles it along with your spine.
Not only will an adaptable pillow complement your head and neck, but it will also allow your muscles to relax, heal, and grow.
As we mentioned before, the science of sleep makes generalised findings about sleeping patterns and behaviours, however, it is up to you to create the perfect individualized sleeping plan to ensure proper rest and healing.
Most pillows that you come across do not target the crucial part of your body - the upper part of your backbone in the neck area that we call the cervical spine. Look for a pillow that caters to your cervical spine and neck and supports its natural shape, you’ll thank us later.
#2 Create a relaxing environment
Maintaining a relaxing environment is vital for proper sleep. It is advisable to keep your sleeping quarters dark, quiet, and comfortable (temperature-wise) and to maintain this rule persistently. For many, even the slightest changes in environment can trigger full-blown insomnia.
There are tiny changes you can introduce that can create a positive snowball effect: consider using earplugs, blinds or light-blocking curtains and take a note: a good cooling/heating system goes a long way as well.
For those who find it harder to fall asleep, meditation, a nice bath, and reading can stimulate sleepiness and the sense of tiredness.
It is important to avoid bright screens because the light emitted by screens negatively impacts the production of melatonin, a hormone that controls your sleep-wake cycle (Cleveland Clinic, 2022). A golden rule for a good night’s sleep is to stop using your phone and other screens at least 30 minutes before your planned sleeping time.
#3 Maintain a sleeping schedule
If you do not maintain a proper sleeping schedule your injuries will take much longer to heal. A good rule of thumb is to get at least 7 hours of sleep, but it would be ideal to gravitate towards 8 hours if possible (Sufrinko et al., 2016).
Maintaining consistency will increase your body's natural response to deal with sprains and various other injuries and reinforce its capacity to regenerate. In case you cannot get enough rest during the night, if you have the luxury of a daytime nap then you should certainly take it.
Healing from injuries is a process that requires many different ingredients to properly work. One of these ingredients is sleep. Without a proper and adequate sleeping schedule our muscles will never get the chance to get the required nutrients, oxygen, and stimulation by growth hormones to heal from the tear and wear caused by our physical activity.
Although there is an entire science of sleep developed to help you sleep better, you should encourage yourself to start listening to your body and observe your surroundings, your environment and where you rest your head matters.
Cleveland Clinic. (2022, May 20). 3 Reasons to Ditch Your Phone Before Bed. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/put-the-phone-away-3-reasons-why-looking-at-it-before-bed-is-a-bad-habit/
Dikmen, U., & Schwab, S. (2021). The influence of life stress, competitive trait anxiety, and sleep disturbance on injury susceptibility in football. Central European Journal of Sport Sciences and Medicine, 36, 73–80. https://doi.org/10.18276/cej.2021.4-07
Johns Hopkins. (2019, November 19). Sports Injury Statistics. Hopkinsmedicine.Org. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/sports-injuries/sports-injury-statistics
McClure, D. J., Zuckerman, S. L., Kutscher, S. J., Gregory, A. J., & Solomon, G. S. (2014). Baseline neurocognitive testing in sports-related concussions: The importance of a prior night’s sleep. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 42(2), 472–478. https://doi.org/10.1177/0363546513510389
Miller, N. L., Shattuck, L. G., & Tvaryanas, A. P. (n.d.). Accommodating Adolescent Sleep-Wake Patterns: The Effects of Shifting the Timing of Sleep on Training Effectiveness. SLEEP, Calhoun - Institutional Archive of the Naval Postgraduate School, 35(8), 1123–1136.
Sufrinko, A., Johnson, E. W., & Henry, L. C. (2016). The influence of sleep duration and sleep-related symptoms on baseline neurocognitive performance among male and female high school athletes. Neuropsychology, 30(4), 484–491. https://doi.org/10.1037/neu0000250