For many people, sleep deprivation and pain go hand in hand. Headaches due to a lack of sleep are common, as are slight joint and muscle pains in other parts of the body. Because sleep deprivation and pain have a reciprocal relationship, it is difficult to determine which is the cause and which is the effect (if the relationship can even be that simplified).
Sleep Deprivation and Pain
If you often suffer from headaches or general pain you should think about your sleeping patterns. Sleep is deeply restorative and related to your well-being.
Traditional thinking usually held that chronic pain causes sleep deprivation, as pain often disturbs sleep. This is very likely true for a number of people. Over the past ten years, however, a number of studies have re-examined the relationship between sleep and pain, and more of these studies are supporting the hypothesis that sleep deprivation or frequent sleep disturbances cause pain.
Sleep deprivation may increase pain sensitivity, making pain more acute, or may result in chronic pain. These studies mean a new way at looking at the way sleep affects how we feel pain.
If you suffer from insomnia or any kind of sleep disorder, you already know how important sleep is to your body. Not getting enough sleep can significantly affect your mood, stress level, and physical health. We already know that sleep is closely connected to our body’s hormones (particularly cortisol), which affect a range of things, from our skin to our appetite.
It’s no surprise that sleep is also connected to pain. At one point or another, almost everyone has probably experienced pain related to sleep deprivation. It could be waking up sore after a non-restful night, getting a headache after having only a few hours of sleep, or feeling much sorer following a workout when you have trouble getting enough sleep.
If you have a long-term sleep disorder, you might be dealing with pain frequently. You might experience back pain, chest pain, or joint pain resulting from a lack of sleep. Of course, this kind of anecdotal evidence isn’t scientific proof.
However, scientists are also very interested in the relationship between sleep and pain. A number of recent studies suggest that sleep deprivation, both for people with serious sleep disorders and for people who occasionally do not get enough sleep, increases pain.
How Sleep Deprivation Affects Pain
In 2004, four German psychologists (Bernd Kunderman, Stefan Lautenbacher, Jürgen-Christian Krieg, and W. Schreiber) undertook a comprehensive study to review past studies on the relationship between sleep deprivation and pain processing.
Kunderman et al. assessed data from both human and animal studies to form a detailed picture of how sleep deprivation physically affects the body in relation to pain. They found a number of effects that support the hypothesis that sleep deprivation heightens pain.
Their research shows that REM sleep deprivation resulted in decreased levels of serotonin receptors in the brain. As you may know, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of well-being. Serotonin plays an important role in inhibiting pain in the body. If your body is unable to process serotonin, it is less able to reduce feelings of pain.
As a result, according to Kunderman et al., “Sleep deprivation appears to enhance predominantly pressure pain sensitivity and to induce muscle pain.”
Sleep Deprivation Increases Pain Sensitivity
In a more specific 2012 study, researchers found that the amount of sleep a person gets affects how sensitive to pain they are. Roehrs et al. completed their study on 18 healthy volunteers who did not have sleep disorders, showing that sleep deprivation can have painful effects even when it only happens on occasion or in small amounts.
The study found that the less sleep the participants got, the more sensitive they were to hot and cold stimuli; their pain threshold was reduced. According to the study, cutting the amount of sleep a participant got in half resulted in a pain sensitivity increase of 24%. This is a significant increase, showing that sleep deprivation really can make you feel more pain.
Participants who got more sleep than their usual amount, on the other hand, had lower pain sensitivity. In essence, the study suggested that sleep can have an analgesic (painkiller) effect. Not getting enough sleep, conversely, can make you more sensitive to pain.
Roehrs et al. suggest that this correlation might occur because sleep disruption can lead to inflammation, and they propose that getting more sleep might help to reduce inflammation, which is of course tied to pain. This idea, however, is still hypothetical. What is clear, though, is that there is a definite relationship between sleep and pain sensitivity.
The Cycle of Sleep Deprivation and Pain
Both of these studies acknowledge that sleep deprivation and pain are linked in a cyclical way. Chronic pain can impede sleep, and chronic sleep problems can lead to long-term pain. This can make it a cycle that’s difficult to break. Whether you consider sleep deprivation or chronic pain your primary problem (or you’re anxious about both), it’s important to consider that the two issues go together. The best way to find relief is likely to look for solutions to both sides: pain and sleep.
These studies show promise in revealing the connection between sleep and pain. There is still a lot of work for researchers to do, however. There are a number of different ideas about why exactly sleep deprivation leads to pain, and what precisely is going on behind the scenes in our bodies. Hopefully future studies will give us a more accurate picture.
For now, what we know for sure is that sleep deprivation can make you feel more pain. If you’re struggling with chronic pain, you should do your best to make getting plenty of sleep a top priority. If you’ve been dealing with a lot of pain lately and don’t know why, it’s worth taking a look at your sleeping habits.
The good news is that getting some extra sleep may be able to reduce your pain. Even if insomnia or chronic pain is not a problem for you, if you want to alleviate any pain you’re feeling, sleeping for longer is a great first step. After all, we already knew that sleep helps our bodies in a myriad of ways. It’s hardly a surprise that it may be a natural painkiller as well.