To Be Less Sensitive to Pain, Sleep Longer

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The number of people suffering from chronic pain is staggering. In a recent Gallup poll, 47% of American adults reported that they experience chronic neck, back, leg, knee or some other form of chronic pain on a regular basis. The amount of money spent on pain relievers and therapies to manage this pain every year is in the hundreds of billions of dollars, an average of $2,000 for every adult American. People try acupuncture to relieve their pain, or meditation, or any number of other conventional or alternative forms of treatment. So will they be pleased or distressed to learn that one of the best things you can do to reduce your sensitivity to pain is to simply get more sleep?

That is the message of a new study published in the journal SLEEP. Researchers led by Timothy Roehrs of Henry Ford Hospital worked with subjects between the ages of 18 and 35 years old who were healthy, free of pain, but sleep-deprived (as measured by a standardized assessment called the Multiple Sleep Latency Test). Half of the subjects were asked to go to bed at their normal time, and the other half were asked to go bed earlier, and stay in bed for 10 hours every night. The latter group was assessed as having gotten an average of 1.8 hours more sleep each night than the former group, who made no changes to their sleeping habits.

The researchers then took each group and tested their pain tolerance by performing a radiant heat stimulus test – they were instructed to hold their finger close to a source of heat for as long as they were able to comfortably do so. They found that the subjects who got more sleep were able to tolerate the heat 25% longer than those who got less sleep.

More sleep was more effective at decreasing pain sensitivity than codeine

The study authors noted that the level of decreased sensitivity to pain they found in the subjects who slept longer was greater than the decrease found in another study that tested the pain-relieving effects of 60 milligrams of codeine. They speculated that the effect may have something to do with the production of cytokines in the body, which are important in controlling and suppressing inflammation: “Pain is a hallmark of inflammation and studies have shown that sleep disruption and sleep restriction activate the pro-inflammatory cytokines interleukin-6 and tumor necrosis factor alpha.”

While this study was small (only 18 subjects), and requires follow-up research to replicate the results in larger numbers of people, especially those already suffering from chronic pain, it hints at possible ways that we can use our body’s own healing processes to fight pain. Many studies have shown the benefits of getting more sleep, and this study adds one more – it may help millions of people deal with their chronic pain, without having to resort to painkillers or expensive treatments.

How can you tell if you need more sleep?

According to sleep experts, you probably need to sleep longer each night if you regularly have many of the following experiences in activity, while awake:

• You’re more forgetful and unfocused. Too little sleep has been linked to numerous cognitive problems, including confusion, lowered concentration and alertness, forgetfulness, and difficulty focusing, paying attention, and learning.

• You’re hungry all day. If you find yourself craving food – especially high-carbohydrate, high-calorie foods – the results of a 2004 indicate that one reason for this may be that you are sleep-deprived. This continual hunger is one reason why people who are sleep-deprived are more likely to become obese.

• You get colds and can’t shake them. A 2009 study indicated that sleeping fewer than seven hours a night resulted in being three times more likely to catch a cold than those who sleep for at least eight hours, and that the colds last longer.

• You’re overly emotional or weepy. If you consistently find yourself reaching for the box of Kleenex over things like the TV news, you might be sleep-deprived. A 2007 study found that people who weren’t getting enough sleep were 60% more reactive to disturbing or negative images.

• You’re clumsy more often. If you discover that lately you’ve become a real klutz and tend to knock things over or spill things more than usual, again, you may be sleep-deprived. Sleepy people have slower and less precise motor skills, and their reaction time increases.

• You start to lose interest in sex. (I saved this one for last, since I figured it would get the most attention.) Studies have shown that in both men and women, sleep deprivation results in diminished sex drive, and in many cases a loss of interest in sex, period. Lack of sleep also increases your body’s levels of cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” so not only are you having less sex, you’re all stressed out about it.

So those are some of the facts about sleep, and a few reasons why you should probably be getting more of it. It’ll help to keep you healthier and more mentally on the ball, it may be of help if you’re dealing with chronic pain, and it might even improve your sex life. What a deal.

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About the author

Juliette Siegfried, MPH
Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767