Lack of sleep can cause existing pain to linger, opening up the door for opioid use and abuse, a new study says. People dealing with sleep deprivation have neural glitches in the brain that heighten and extend painful episodes, according to findings published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
“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,” Matthew Walker, a neuroscience professor at University of California at Berkeley and study senior author, said in a news release.
Lack of sleep has been linked to a host of health issues and conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease.
In sleep deprived patients, the researchers observed a lower level of activity in the nucleus accumbens portion of the brain, which is responsible for spiking dopamine levels to decrease pain. They also saw a slow down of the part of the brain that alerts the body to pain.
“The optimistic takeaway here is that sleep is a natural analgesic that can help manage and lower pain,” Walker said. “Yet ironically, one environment where people are in the most pain is the worst place for sleep — the noisy hospital ward.”
The study showed that even a slight disruption in sleep could dull the brain’s pain sensory system.
“Our findings suggest that patient care would be markedly improved, and hospital beds cleared sooner, if uninterrupted sleep were embraced as an integral component of healthcare management,” he said.
Video credit: UC Berkeley video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Stephen McNally