A new research study has highlighted a neurological effect caused due to insufficient sleep: an increased sensitivity to pain.
A lack of sleep is said to impair your natural mechanisms for reducing pain, as per new research that has drawn attention to the association between sleep deprivation, chronic pain, and opioid addiction.
While a major share of the U.S. citizens is living with chronic pain, the death toll due to an overdose of opioids is rising with every passing day.
How does Sleep Deprivation Affect Pain Sensitivity?
The researchers initiated the study by inducing pain in 24 healthy participants by application of heat to their legs. While they were inducing pain, the scientist also kept scanning the brains of these individuals in order to examine the circuits that modulate pain.
At the beginning of the study, none of the participants had any problem related to pain or sleep.
Following this step, the scientists proceeded by recording the threshold for pain in every participant, particularly after a night’s sleep. This was accomplished with the help of a functional MRI machine. Once they were able to assess the pain threshold for every individual, they repeated the process after one whole night of no sleep.
The researchers reported that the participants felt discomfort at low temperatures showing an increase in their sensitivity towards pain due to a lack of sleep.
The researchers also found that the somatosensory cortex, a region of the brain related to pain sensitivity, showed hyperactivity in participants who had gotten no sleep. This provided further confirmation of the hypothesis that a lack of sleep interferes with the neural circuits that process pain.
A surprising finding that the scientists made during this study are that a sleepless night caused the nucleus accumbens of the brain to get lower than usual. This area causes the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter which relieves pain and increases joy.
This proved that sleep loss does not only amply the pain-sensing regions but also shuts down the natural analgesia centers of the brain. Lastly, the researchers also found that the insula of the brain which assesses the pain signals and prepares your body for responding to the brain also becomes underactive due to lack of sleep.
Sleep as a Natural Analgesic
For replication of the findings, the researchers conducted a survey involving 230 individuals who were registered in Amazon’s Mechanical Turk online marketplace. The participants were instructed to report their sleep patterns and the levels of sleep sensitivity for a few days.
The researchers found that even the smallest changes in the sleep pattern of these people caused a change in pain sensitivity.
The results clearly indicate that even the subtle changes in sleep can have a clear impact on the pain burden during the next day. So, in order to relieve the population from sleep deprivation, new interventions must be introduced.
It is important to assess the quality of sleep for every patient and make necessary adjustments to it before prescribing opioids. This will not only reduce the incidence of chronic pain but may also help control the increasing death toll due to opioid abuse and overuse.