A Good Nights Sleep Helps Your Brain Deal Better with Pain

Sleeplessness directly affects our sensitivity to pain.
Jessica Miley

A new study has linked sleep-deprivation and pain sensitivity. UC Berkeley scientists have released their research that answers some of the questions around sleep loss and chronic pain. 

The researchers completed their study by identifying neural glitches in the sleep-deprived brain that can intensify and prolong the agony of sickness and injury. 

A poll by the National Sleep Foundation in 2015 found that two in three chronic pain patients suffer from recurring sleep disruptions. 

“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,” said study's senior author Matthew Walker, a UC Berkeley professor of neuroscience and psychology.

Sleep-deprived brains struggle to deal with the pain 

The researchers found that the neural mechanism that picks up pain signals, evaluate them and release natural pain relief are disrupted in human operating on insufficient sleep.

Matthew Walker and UC Berkeley Ph.D. student Adam Krause scanned the brain of two dozen healthy young adults while applying an uncomfortable heat source on their legs. Those adults who were sleep deprived reacted more intensely to the pain sensation. 

Not only did the adults have increased pain sensation, but they also recorded lower activity in the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain’s reward circuitry that, increases dopamine levels to relieve pain. 

“Sleep loss not only amplifies the pain-sensing regions in the brain but blocks the natural analgesia centers, too,” Walker said

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Sleep deprived brains were also operating slowly in the insula. This part of the brain evaluates pain signals and puts them into contact to assist the body in preparing to deal with the sensation. 

Small sleep disruptions can affect pain sensitivity

“This is a critical neural system that assesses and categorizes the pain signals and allows the body’s own natural painkillers to come to the rescue,” said Krause, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in Walker’s Center for Human Sleep Science lab at UC Berkeley.

To further test the sleep-pain connection in more common daily-life scenarios, researchers surveyed more than 250 adults of all ages who were asked to report on their nightly hours of sleep as well as their day-to-day pain levels over the course of a few days. 

The results showed that even minor disruptions in their sleep and wake patterns correlated with pain sensitivity changes. 

“The results clearly show that even very subtle changes in nightly sleep — reductions that many of us think little of in terms of consequences — have a clear impact on your next-day pain burden,” Krause said

The researchers hope that their findings will be an instigator for changes in hospital design and operation. “The optimistic takeaway here is that sleep is a natural analgesic that can help manage and lower pain,” said Walker, author of the bestseller Why We Sleep. 

Yet ironically, one environment where people are in the most pain is the worst place for sleep — the noisy hospital ward.” 

The hope that uninterrupted sleep is made a priority for patients. Many patients in the hospital are woken in the night for checks or by noise due to the daily operation of the large institutions.

But the studies authors say prioritizing sleep will help patients get better more quickly.

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