Chronic sleep loss has many downsides, among them weight gain, depression and irritability. But now scientists have found a new one: It also weakens your tolerance for pain.
In recent studies, researchers have shown that losing sleep may disrupt the body’s pain signaling system, heightening sensitivity to painful stimuli. Though it is not clear why, one theory is that sleep loss increases inflammation throughout the body. Catching up on sleep if you are behind may reduce inflammation.
Scientists believe this could have implications for people with chronic pain. It could also have an impact on the effects of painkillers, which appear to be blunted after chronic sleep loss.
In one study published in the journal Sleep, scientists at the sleep disorders and research center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit recruited 18 healthy adults and split them into two groups. One was allowed to sleep for an average of nine hours, while the other averaged two fewer hours of sleep each night.
To assess pain thresholds, the researchers measured how long the subjects were able to hold a finger to a source of radiant heat. After four nights, the group that was allowed to sleep the longest was able to withstand the painful stimuli much longer, by about 25 percent on average.
Several studies in the past have had similar findings, including one in 2006 that showed that one night of cutting sleep in half could significantly reduce a person’s threshold for physical pain.
“Disturbed sleep is a key complaint of people experiencing acute and chronic pain,” one report concluded. “These two vital functions, sleep and pain, interact in complex ways that ultimately impact the biological and behavioral capacity of the individual.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Chronic sleep loss appears to lower tolerance for pain, though it’s not clear why.