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Sleep has a huge impact on our experience of pain, more so than we thought. There is pain to sleep debt. This article will unpack the science behind it and what you can do to help reduce your pain by improving your sleep.

Let’s set the scene

Your alarm goes off with the sound of tweeting birds.  You thought bird calls would be a relaxing morning wake-up but turns out it’s just plain annoying. What makes it worse is that you now link real birds to your alarm. You roll over to switch it off and feel your joints creak and crank. It’s the first sign that it’s not a good pain day.

What’s gone wrong? Thinking back to the night before, you met up with friends and stayed out later than normal. Your head hit the pillow after 12am, and you realize you’ve managed to only get six hours of sleep. You wonder about the link between the two.

It may be more significant than we thought.

Sleep and pain: the science

A recent article (Adam,  et al., 2019), investigated exactly this link and went further. They found that short term sleep loss increases pain reactivity in both males and females. It also blunts areas in the brain that help you to deal with pain. Therefore, your pain threshold is lowered and the range of painful stimulation is increased. Hot water, or clumsily ramming your thigh into your desk corner might not be considered painful if you’d had a good night’s sleep. Likewise, you don’t notice your joint pain until the morning after  bad night’s sleep. A painful stimulus is more painful when you’re in sleep debt, and you notice it quicker.

The other key thing they found was that small night to night changes in sleep quality determine day to day changes in experienced pain. Last nights sleep impacts today.

Based on these findings,

Sleep is a target for pain management

We’ve seen a rise in chronic pain condition over the industrial and tech age, as well as a decrease in our sleep time. This occurrences are not just coincidental. They are related to each other, working hand in hand.

If you’re experiencing pain, guard your sleep. You’ll be your knight in shining armour while you reduce the pain of sleep debt.

If you’re interested in finding out more about good sleep habits, read my article, Significant Sleep.

Krause, A., Prather, A., Wager, T., Lindquist, M. and Walker, M. (2019). The pain of sleep loss: A brain characterization in humans. The Journal of Neuroscience, pp.2408-18.