Does Lack of Sleep Reduce Pain Tolerance?

The most recent data suggests that as many as one-third of all adults in the United States are not getting enough sleep. This is important, of course, because sleep deprivation can have many negative effects on the body and the brain. Extended sleep deprivation can actually result in an inebriation-type state of cognitive impairment that can hinder learning and memory. 

While this data is nothing new, a new study does highlight maybe there are even more health detriments to sleep deprivation than we thought.  For one, lack of sleep may also be linked to heightened pain sensitivity. Looking more closely at the data, we also see that lack of sleep results in impairment in the brain’s natural mechanism for pain relief in such a way that harkens to other public health crises like chronic pain and even prescription opioid addiction. 

This study is important because while one-third of all adults are not getting enough sleep, as mentioned before, about one in five live with chronic pain.  That means about 20 percent—or 50 million adults—have chronic pain that might be remedied by getting better sleep.  Furthermore, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention comment that roughly 130 people in the US die from opioid overdose every day, on average. 

Combined, then, the data shows that getting better sleep could improve pain-associated health outcomes, which means lower frequency for opioid painkiller prescription; and that means we can also potentially lower our risk for opioid abuse and overdose in the United States. 

Lead study author Adam Krause explains, “Anyone who’s had persistent back pain knows that they don’t sleep well when they’re in pain, but what they also know is that when they don’t sleep well, it hurts more the next day.”

The University of California (Berkeley) PhD student goes on to say “What was actually somewhat surprising is that nearly 80 percent of our participants showed increased pain after sleep deprivation.”

At the end of the day, Krause said, “It’s our hope that this study will bring greater attention to the role of sleep in treatment, particularly for pain.  If we can reduce the use of opiate narcotics, we can hopefully reduce reduction rates and the dependency on these drugs that, in fact, actually disrupt sleep.”

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