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Less Sleep, More Pain—Not Sleeping Well at Night May Be the Cause

Findings Highlight Importance of Sleep Hygiene to Pain Care

The association between chronic pain and sleep impairment has been well documented, including findings from a 2015 poll by the National Sleep Foundation that 2 of 3 patients with chronic pain also experience recurring disruptions in their sleep. New research conducted at UC Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science has provided fresh insight into the mechanisms by which poor sleep can intensify pain, highlighting ‘neural glitches’ in the brain that heighten pain sensitivity in sleep deprived patients. Senior author Matthew Walker, PhD, professor of neuroscience and psychology, said of the findings, “If poor sleep intensifies our sensitivity to pain, as this study demonstrates, then sleep must be placed much closer to the center of patient care, especially in hospital wards.” The conclusions were published last month in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The study recruited 25 young adult subjects who did not have either sleep disorders or pain conditions. Using heat application to the legs, researchers first established baseline measures of pain sensitivity following a full night’s sleep. This self-reported perception was repeated following sleep deprivation, and their brain activity was assessed via fMRI scan. Almost all subjects reported feeling pain at lower temperature levels than before sleep deprivation, and brain imaging revealed malfunctions in the neural mechanisms that manage physiological pain response. Dr. Walker commented, “The optimistic takeaway here is that sleep is a natural analgesic that can help manage and lower pain. Yet ironically, one environment where people are in the most pain is the worst place for sleep—the noisy hospital ward.”

For more about the sleep/pain connection, click here.

Read the press release.

The journal abstract may be read here.

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