Lack of Sleep = Increase in Pain

Chronic sleeplessness has always been attributed to depression, irritability, and weight gain. However, researchers have now found yet another health implication of lack of sleep: it increases your sensitivity to pain.

A team of scientists used Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to identify the association between sleeplessness and the body’s ability to cope with pain. And the results were significant – loss of sleep may interrupt the brain’s signaling system towards pain, increasing the body’s sensitivity to even the minutest painful stimulus. “Sleep deprivation enhances pain responsivity within the primary sensing regions of the brain’s cortex yet blunts activity in other regions that modulate pain processing, the striatum, and insula,” the study suggests.

Studies Suggesting Chronic Sleeplessness Increases Pain Sensitivity

Several studies are ongoing to establish the association between sleep loss and increased pain. In the one mentioned above, Matthew Walker and his colleagues from the University of California put a heating pad on the legs of twenty-five healthy and well-slept adults. The heat was transmitted through the pad unless the temperature became unbearable. The highest average temperature was recorded at 111 degrees Fahrenheit.

In the next part of the research, the participants were made to endure one night of sleep deprivation. The heat test was again performed on them the next morning, and the average dropped to almost 107 degrees Fahrenheit. After analyzing the fMRI data of the participants, Walker and his team observed a reduction in activities in the brain’s insular cortex and nucleus accumbens. These are the regions responsible for regulating the dopamine levels in the body in response to painful stimuli.

In a press release, Walker said, “Sleep loss not only amplifies the pain-sensing regions in the brain but blocks the natural analgesia centers, too.” “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,” he further added.

In another study, researchers at the Sleep Disorders and Research Center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit had 18 healthy adults who were split into two groups – one group was allowed to sleep for nine hours on an average, and the other group had only two hours of sleep each night. To evaluate their pain thresholds, the subjects were made to hold their fingers over radiant heat. After experimenting for four nights, the group that had optimum sleep showed an increased ability to withstand the pain, by about 25%.

Another report concluded, “Disturbed sleep is a key complaint of people experiencing acute and chronic pain,” These two vital functions, sleep and pain, interact in complex ways that ultimately impact the biological and behavioral capacity of the individual.”

While it is still not clear why sleep deprivation reduces pain tolerance, one theory suggests that sleeplessness increases inflammation in the body, thereby reducing its sensitivity to pain. Having good sleep can aid in optimal functioning of the brain and the body, increasing the ability to withstand pain better.

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