Unable to Sleep after Surgery? Strategies for a Successful Night’s Rest

by | Sep 6, 2022 | 0 comments

Unable to Sleep after Surgery? Tips for Quality Rest

If you’ve had an operation and are unable to sleep after surgery, this article is for you. Being a light sleeper myself, I had to find ways to fall and stay asleep after my procedure.

Sleeping with a Broken Arm

I fractured my elbow after falling off my bike. The first day, I was in shock. And, the first night, I didn’t know what to do with myself or my arm.

I literally sat in a recliner the first night, attempting to keep my arm still and somehow sleep through the night.

It didn’t work.

The second night, I sat in that same recliner. My husband asked me if I was going to sleep in the chair again. I burst out laughing, “Sleep!?! I didn’t sleep at all last night! No way. I need to figure something else out!!”

Good thing we had an extra bedroom with another bed that I could make my temporary home. And boy, I sure did “move in” to that guestroom for a lot longer than anticipated.

Surgery + Light Sleeper = Unable to Sleep after Surgery

Yup, I struggled after my operation. I was put into a hard, immobile cast and told to keep my arm elevated. Does that sound like a position you could easily sleep in? Me neither.

So, I had to act fast if I wanted a good night’s rest. I figured out a whole bunch of tricks to help me get to bed. Here are three strategies for supporting quality sleep after surgery.

1) Set up the bed for success.

Now, first, you need an extra bed. As I said, I started sleeping in our guestroom. If you don’t have access to an extra bed, can you get an air mattress? If not, then I hope you have a partner who gives you some space in the bed… cause this first tip requires some room.

So, I was up in our guestroom. Now, I needed to maximize my supports for propping my arms up. If you don’t have extra pillows around your home, you’re going to need some. And, maybe not just “some”… I’m talking whatever it takes to get you comfortable.

For me, it was six pillows. I needed two under my affected limb. Then, I needed one on either side of my head (we’ll get to that in a moment… keep reading). Finally, I needed pillows under each knee.

Why the knee pillows? Well, again, in my case (elbow surgery) I had to sleep with my arm propped up on pillows at my side. This meant that I couldn’t sleep on my side (ugh, I am usually a side-sleeper… this was going to be tough!).

If you’re going to sleep on your back for long periods of time, you’ll start to notice some lower back pain since the back may be arching some. So, putting pillows under the knees can take pressure off the back.

Now, your operation may be different from mine. If you’ve had some kind of leg or back or another part of the body surgery, you may not be able to set the bed up exactly like me. In fact, even if you’ve had elbow surgery as I did, you may find my suggestions aren’t 100% for you.

That’s fine. Do what you need to do to set the bed up. And whatever the surgery type, that means pillows. So, either invest in pillows yourself or if people in your life are asking how they can help you after surgery… ask for pillows instead of flowers or candy.

2) Do’s and don’ts to get you through the night

Besides setting up the bed with a supportive pillow regimen, you’ll want to consider other items that will help you get some rest.

Create a sleep-friendly environment. Make sure it’s dark, cool, and quiet. If you can’t get it 100% dark, consider using a sleeping mask. (Pro tip… if you’ve received a mesh sleeve after surgery that you’re supposed to wear under a splint, you can even use that mesh sleeve as a sleeping mask.)

Make sure it’s cool. If it’s too hot in the room, you’re likely going to be unable to sleep after surgery. Heat causes sweating and sweating is uncomfortable. The sweat will probably wake you up and give you issues with falling back to sleep.

Keep the room quiet. Avoid television while sleeping. If you’re partnered up with a heavy snorer (like I was), perhaps a sound machine to create white noise will be needed. There’s nothing worse than laying awake at night, listening to the sounds of the room.

While you want it dark, cool, and quiet, you also need to be safe. After surgery, you’re probably going to be taking some pain medications that can make you drowsy or unbalanced. Be sure that nothing is in the path between your bed and the bathroom. If you have to get up in the middle of the night, you don’t want to be tripping and falling even more.

3) Protect your body while you sleep.

OK, up above in tip number one, I said I’d come back to the head/neck pillows. Here we go.

unable to sleep after surgerySo, for me (elbow surgery patient), I had to keep my arm up and sleep on my back. It was challenging. I was typically a side sleeper before my accident and sleeping on my back felt funny.

I literally didn’t know what to do with my head. I noticed that if I let it hang to one side, I’d wake up with this sore, pinched neck thing. You know when you sleep funny and have a tight neck? Yes, that’s what was happening… that’s what I was literally doing to myself when I was unable to sleep after surgery.

So, what did I do? Well, I got smart and realized I can’t just let my head flop to one side.

I propped one pillow on the left side of my head and one on the right. That way, my head was literally wedged between a pillow sandwich. It actually felt quite nice (so much so, I still do it to this day). If you don’t have access to two additional pillows, do you have a neck pillow used on a plane? You know one of those u-shaped pillows that are placed around the neck on a long plane ride?

I could see using a plane pillow to support myself as well. In fact, I think I’ll try it tonight!

4) Bonus tip: Tell your housemates you need quality rest.

After surgery, you need rest. In fact, my occupational therapist harped on this a lot during my rehab. She would ask me often about my sleep and educate me just how important a quality night’s rest was for healing.

If you live with other people, you need to speak up. They may not be aware that rest is needed for healing. You might need to ask them for help by creating some boundaries around bedtime.

As I said, I slept with a snorer. I needed to get away from the snoring, but if that’s not possible for you, then you need to talk with your partner about some creative ideas.

Perhaps you go into the bedroom first and set up your space. Maybe you use some essential oil aromatherapy to relax your body, mind, and spirit. You could even consider a healing meditation or music before bed.

Getting yourself situated in the bed first and falling asleep before others join you may be what you need to get some sleep after surgery.

Well, hopefully, you found this helpful. I’ve got a ton more strategies for healing after surgery. I’d love to support you if you need some additional help. Click here to learn more about working with me today.

About the Author: Elizabeth Scala MSN/MBA, RN, HNB-BC, RYT (200) is a board-certified holistic nurse, registered yoga instructor, and reiki master.

Elizabeth received her dual master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University. She is a certified coach, nature lover, and avid meditator.

Elizabeth lives in Maryland with her supportive husband and playful pit bull. She enjoys gardening, jigsaw puzzles, farming, music, and hiking.


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