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RA and Sleep

Many individuals with arthritis complain of difficulty sleeping. According to the 2003 Sleep in America Survey, conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, three-quarters of adults over the age of 55 years with some type of arthritis reported sleep problems. These included not getting enough sleep (less than 6 hours per night), feeling sleepy during the daytime hours, poor quality of sleep, insomnia, or some other diagnosable sleep disorder.1

RA itself is often associated with symptoms including excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue, pain, and depression, all of which may have a negative impact on the ability to get sound sleep. Sleep problems and related symptoms affect an estimated 54% to 70% of adults with RA and include difficulty falling asleep, non-restorative sleep, excessive waking during the night, and daytime sleepiness and fatigue.1

There is some evidence that increased joint pain interferes with sleep. Such pain may increase body movement during the night and cause interruptions in sleep and reduced sleep efficiency. Several sleep studies conducted in patients with RA have shown that sleep problems are directly related to disease activity. Additionally, patients with RA are at increased risk for primary sleep disorders including restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, and periodic leg movements of sleep.1


What can I do to improve my sleep?

There are some simple steps that you can take to improve your sleep. These steps are designed to promote good sleep hygiene. We usually think of good hygiene in terms of washing our hands or keeping kitchen surfaces clean, but hygiene applies to sleep as well. If we practice good sleep habits, we can improve our ability to get a full night’s rest.

Recommendations for good sleep hygiene include establishing a regular time for getting to bed and getting up in the morning, making sure that your bed is comfortable and that your bedroom is dark and quiet, making sure that you use your bed for sleep and sex only, getting regular exercise, avoiding caffeine or other stimulants during the evening, and putting aside time before going to bed to get relaxed and ready for sleep.2



Recommendations for good sleep hygiene

Avoid napping during the day
  • Napping during the day can disturb our normal wake-sleep pattern
Go to bed and get up at the same time every day (including on weekends)
  • If you establish a regular time for getting to bed and getting up, there’s less chance that you’ll throw your body’s internal clock off
Avoid stimulants close to bedtime
  • Stimulants, including alcohol, caffeine (coffee, chocolate), and nicotine can interfere with our ability to sleep soundly
  • While alcohol may get us to sleep quickly, when it is fully metabolized it can cause arousal and can intefere with the next stage of sleep
Don’t eat too close to bedtime
  • Eating food before bedtime can cause sleep disruption
  • Do not eat large, heavy meals too close to bedtime
Get enough natural light
  • Exposure to natural light will help maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle
Get regular exercise
  • Getting regular exercise is good for your overall health and will improve your sleep, as well
  • Just make sure that you don’t exercise too close to bedtime
Develop a relaxation routine before going to bed
  • Put aside an hour or so to wind down before getting into bed
Use your bed only for sleep and sex
  • It is important to associate your bed mainly with sleep, so do not read or watch TV in bed
  • Ideally, you should use your bed only for sleep and sex
Make sure your sleep environment is conducive to sleep
  • Make sure your bedroom is relaxing: yoru bed should be comfortable and your room should be dark and quiet
  • The temperature in your room should not be too hot or cold



What can I do if sleep hygiene is not enough?

If you continue to have sleep problems despite trying to improve your sleep hygiene, talk to your doctor about ways to improve your sleep. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist who can evaluate your problem and suggest a treatment plan. Your sleep problems may be related to nighttime pain or depression. So, adequate treatment of these conditions may improve your ability to sleep. A doctor who specializes in treating sleep problems can also recommend the use of a number of drugs with sedative properties, including selected antidepressant medications and benzodiazepines.


Are there supplements that I can take to help with sleep problems?

There are several herbal and other supplements with sedative properties that may be beneficial in improving sleep. These include the natural body chemical melatonin and the herbal supplements valerian, kava kava, 5-HTP (Griffonia simplicifolia), and boswellia.

Talk to your doctor before you try an herbal or other supplement to improve your sleep. Because herbal and other supplements can react with pharmaceutical treatments for RA and may pose a risk themselves when taken at too high a dosage, it is important to discuss your use of these substances with your doctor. Your doctor has the resources and tools to identify potential harmful interactions between treatments, both prescribed and non-prescribed, to ensure your safety. In addition, your doctor can help you determine the proper dosage for any supplements that you decide to use.


Are there treatment options other than drugs and supplements for improving sleep?

A variety complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) approaches can be useful in promoting relaxation and helping with sleep problems. These include meditation and hypnosis, as well as mind-body disciplines such as yoga and Tai Chi. Some CAM approaches that are effective at relieving pain may be useful in improving sleep, if joint pain is causing restlessness or interrupted sleep at night.

Written by: Jonathan Simmons | Last reviewed: September 2019.
1. Abad VC, Sarinas PS, Guilleminault C. Sleep and rheumatologic disorders. Sleep Med Rev 2008;12:211-28. 2. Sleep hygiene. National Sleep Foundation. Available at: Accessed on 070913.