With all of the scientific evidence available at our fingertips today, it’s no secret that sleep should be a top priority for our health. However, If you're looking for yet another reason to prioritize your sleep, there is new research — to add to the copious amounts of past research — suggesting that getting more shut-eye at night actually makes you feel less pain.
For those suffering from chronic pain, regularly dealing with aches or illness, or generally has a physically strenuous day-to-day lifestyle, this could be life-changing. Published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the new study found the sleep-deprived brain experiences "neural glitches" that increase our sensitivity to pain stimuli and block our natural pain relief system.
To conduct the study, researchers applied increasing levels of heat to the legs of two dozen healthy adults in a lab setting to test their pain thresholds, all while their brains were being monitored by an fMRI scanner. They conducted this experiment twice: once after the participants had a full night of sleep and once after they'd been kept awake all night. The findings showed people could handle less heat when they were sleep-deprived than when fully rested. This is huge when considering a large portion of the US population is sleep deprived.
"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," said Adam Krause, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley, and the study's lead author, in a news release. "What was actually somewhat surprising is that nearly 80 percent of our participants showed increased pain after sleep deprivation."
According to the fMRI scans, the sleep-deprived brains had an amplified response in the brain's somatosensory cortex (which is responsible for sensing pain) and lower activity in the nucleus accumbens (which is part of the brain's reward system, which typically relieves pain by flooding the system with more dopamine). The insula, another region responsible for interpreting pain signals and calling in the appropriate amount of the body's natural painkillers, also slowed down without sleep.
Essentially, when the human brain is deprived of sleep, the pain-sensing regions of the brain kick into high gear and our natural tools to relieve pain loose power. That means you're apt to feel more pain when you're low on sleep.
The researchers believe the findings offer a potential positive alternative for health providers working with patients suffering from chronic pain and the patients who may be at risk of opiate dependency. "It's our hope that this study will bring greater attention to the role of sleep in treatment, particularly for pain," Krause said. "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."
He added, "So for pain, the doctor should prescribe good sleep. And the reason why is that we've shown that good sleep can reduce next-day pain. But actually, the one thing we've learned about sleep is that it touches every system in the body. So good sleep is not only good for pain, but it's good for the heart. It's good for the brain. It's good for metabolism and the immune system. So sleep represents this relatively easy low-cost, but also broadly effective prescription, not only for pain but for a variety of diseases."
Furthermore, another finding from the studies showed that it wasn’t sleep duration that lessened the experience of pain but rather sleep quality—that is, how deep and restorative the night of sleep felt for each individual person.
If you're struggling just to clock in enough hours asleep, consider starting by simply trying to improve the quality of the sleep you're already getting. This might seem like it would prove to be a difficult feat if you suffer from chronic pain. If pain prevents quality sleep and sleep deprivation causes increased pain, how do you break the cycle? Which comes first the chicken or the egg?
If you are constantly suffering from pain and lack of sleep, It all comes down to your tools for sleep. Investing in a sleep system — mattress, bed frame, pillows, etc. — that is engineered for pain relief and quality sleep is an investment for your health and quality of life. Let your bed do the work while you get the sleep your body needs in order to combat the pain you feel on a regular basis.