Sleep May Play A Role In How Well Pain Meds Work

By Kelly Burch 05/12/17

A new study investigated the link between sleep, chronic pain and pain medication.

sleepless woman lying in bed staring at clock.

A new study shows that sleep deprivation may have a large affect on pain—increasing sensitivity to pain and also decreasing the relief from pain medications. 

The study, which was published this month in the journal Nature, was conducted on mice. Researchers kept the mice awake without overstimulating them in order to simulate the type of sleep deprivation that occurs when people stay up too late doing things like watching television or surfing the internet. 

They found that when the mice were sleep-deprived, they became hypersensitive to pain. They also found that pain relievers, including ibuprofen and morphine, could not stop the increasing susceptibility to pain. However, drugs that promoted wakefulness, like caffeine and modafinil, did stop that hypersensitivity to pain that was caused by sleep deprivation, despite the fact that those drugs did not provide pain relief to mice that had slept normally. 

"We found that five consecutive days of moderate sleep deprivation can significantly exacerbate pain sensitivity over time in otherwise healthy mice,” said Chloe Alexandre, PhD, the lead study author, according to a report on Medical News Today. “The response was specific to pain, and was not due to a state of general hyperexcitability to any stimuli."

The study is important because many people who suffer from chronic pain also experience fatigue. This study indicates that a new approach to pain management that focuses on managing fatigue might be more effective than current treatments. 

“This represents a new kind of analgesic that had not been considered before, one that depends on the biological state of the animal,” said Clifford Woolf, study co-author. “Such drugs could help disrupt the chronic pain cycle, in which pain disrupts sleep, which then promotes pain, which further disrupts sleep.”

For now, the researchers recommend that chronic pain patients supplement their painkillers with medications that aid in sleep at night, and drugs that keep them alert during the day. Doing so could prevent them from reaching the point where they are more sensitive to pain, but are less able to get relief from medications. 

“Many patients with chronic pain suffer from poor sleep and daytime fatigue, and some pain medications themselves can contribute to these co-morbidities,” Dr. Kiran Maski, sleep disorders specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston told Medical News Today.

"This study suggests a novel approach to pain management that would be relatively easy to implement in clinical care. Clinical research is needed to understand what sleep duration is required and to test the efficacy of wake-promoting medications in chronic pain patients."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.