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Sleep treatment a new weapon against chronic pain

Sleep treatment a new weapon against chronic pain

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Woolcock sleep researchers are working on new ways to help reduce the impact of chronic lower back pain on people's lives.

Their research will test whether a digital behavioural therapy for insomnia can be delivered through a smartphone app to improve the health and wellbeing of people with chronic lower back pain. 

We asked researcher James Puterflam about what the research team hopes to achieve.

What is your research about?

We want to know if improving sleep will lead to improvements in daily function and pain severity in people who experience chronic lower back pain.

Chronic lower back pain is one of the most prevalent health conditions in the world.

The majority of people with this type of pain do not sleep well. However, a person's sleep problems are often seen as secondary to their back pain – their sleep disturbance is often undiagnosed. But we know through recent research that sleep disturbance and chronic pain conditions tend to develop together. In fact, some research suggests that poor sleep is a more significant cause of chronic lower back pain than the other way around, which goes against what one might expect. Unfortunately, treatment of chronic pain does not routinely involve treatment for sleep disturbance, which can directly influence how one processes and experiences pain.

Our research study will explore this relationship by looking at the impact of sleep therapy on people's experience of chronic lower back pain.

What does your research involve, and what’s unique about it?

Our research will explore the use of 'sleep retraining therapy', a type of behavioural therapy, delivered via a smartphone app. 

We'll be testing this therapy on people with chronic lower back pain (pain in the lower back lasting 3 months or more). There is already some research on the effect of behavioural therapy for insomnia, but this has mostly been conducted on people with mixed chronic pain conditions. We're focussing specifically on conditions of chronic lower back pain.

The digital aspects of our research are also unique. App stores are flooded with sleep apps. However, most of those apps are not supported by any scientific evidence. Researchers at the Woolcock have been designing an app, called SleepFix, to deliver sleep therapy that is effective, user friendly, and supported by the latest scientific evidence. We’ll use this app to make sure we're getting the most reliable results for our analysis.

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What does your research involve?

First up, we'll be asking physiotherapists and people with chronic lower back pain about their experiences and attitudes toward digital health interventions for sleep.

We will use this data to design an online trial using the SleepFix app to deliver a behavioural therapy for people with chronic lower back pain who are experiencing insomnia. 

What do you hope will come out of your research?

Chronic pain is a very complex issue, so simply improving sleep may not necessarily lead to significant reductions in a person’s pain. However, we do know from prior research that a good night's sleep improves a person's ability to cope and function despite the presence of pain.

In other words, good sleep helps with how a person psychologically processes and physically experiences pain.

We hope to show that a well-designed digital sleep app, backed by evidence-based therapy and support, can be an accessible and welcome addition to addressing sleep disturbance in people with chronic lower back pain.

Through our research, we want to find ways for people with chronic lower back pain to be healthier and happier.

Volunteer for this research project

If you currently experience chronic lower back pain, then you could be eligible for a 5-minute survey in which you could win one of two $200 eGift cards. Go to

Additionally, if you have chronic lower back pain and would like to be involved in future research to take place next year involving a digital sleep app, you can register your interest by emailing James at

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