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Can Sleep Deprivation Increase Pain Perception?

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Here's an interesting question...

If you sleep less, will you become more sensitive to pain?

Less sleep, more pain?

Or, does the pain cause you to lose sleep, trapping you in a vicious cycle of pain and sleepless nights?

Good question. 

What do the experts say?

We reviewed the scientific literature, and it's interesting to read what the experts say. 

For example, a review article published in 2004 said a few interesting findings.

First, they noted that sleep deprivation can "...counteract analgesic effects of pharmacologic treatments..." especially opioids. 

What is unclear is if the sleep deprivation is during REM sleep or another phase of sleep. 

Second, they noted that sleep deprivation causes "hyperalgesic changes," meaning that less sleep results in increased sensitivity to pain. 

detailed study from Johns Hopkins went through the trouble of disturbing the sleep of women who suffered from chronic pain. 

They concluded that disruptions in sleep continuity, not sleep restriction, impairs the body's ability to inhibit pain. 

Think about this. 

This study concluded that sleep disruptions, not sleep restriction (that is, only allowing 6 hours of sleep instead of 8) during the night can impair the body's ability to fight pain. 

So there is something that takes place during the normal course of sleep that helps fight pain, provided we stay asleep and run through the normal sleep cycles such as REM. 

What about fibromyalgia?

For fibromyalgia, it gets more complicated. 

Many fibromyalgia patients report insomnia as one of their key symptoms. 

So, therefore, the fibromyalgia pain is causing the insomnia, right?

Possibly...

But it could be a cycle where the fibromyalgia causes insomnia, which in turn increases the sensitivity to pain. 

So the fibromyalgia feels worse, causing even more insomnia. 

And so it goes. 

What about back pain?

study conducted at the King's College in London examined the relationship between lower back pain and insomnia.

They concluded that over 50% of chronic pain patients has clinical insomnia. 

In other words, they concluded that the pain caused insomnia. 

But they could not conclude that the insomnia worsened the pain. 

sleep deprivation and pain

Can you recover?

Let's suppose you are temporarily sleep deprived, such as from a long trip or from jet lag. 

If your pain levels increase from the sleep deprivation, can recovery of sleep reduce pain?

Yup. 

study in 2001 demonstrated this point. Interestingly, they found that the recovery of sleep caused pain relief equivalent to prescription pain relievers!

Now this effect is short lived, and the study was rather small. 

But it does support the idea that temporary sleep deprivation (and the resulting increase in pain sensitivity) can be recovered and lead to pain relief. 

Conclusion

Well, it's pretty clear to us that pain and sleep are related. 

Whether pain causes a decrease in sleep, or whether the sleep disturbance causes increased pain is an open question. 

Regardless, there is a need for all of us to get as much sleep as possible not only to fight pain, but also to maintain our peak physical condition. 

So grab a new pillow (they're cheaper than mattresses) and start reducing your pain through sleep...today!

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