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Chronic Pain? Get More Sleep

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If you suffer from chronic pain, make sure you get plenty of sleep, say researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who found that sleep loss increases pain sensitivity. Can’t get more sleep? Then drink a cup of coffee, which also can help you cope with pain.

Both getting more sleep and drinking coffee (or taking medications that keep you alert) eased chronic pain better than standard pain-relievers, according to a study published in Nature Medicine.

Pain physiologist Alban Latremoliere, Ph.D. and sleep physiologist Chloe Alexandre, Ph.D. measured the effects of acute or chronic sleep loss on sleepiness and sensitivity to both painful and non-painful stimuli in mice. They then tested standard pain medications, like ibuprofen and morphine, as well as wakefulness-promoting agents like caffeine and modafinil.

“We found that five consecutive days of moderate sleep deprivation can significantly exacerbate pain sensitivity over time in otherwise healthy mice,” says Alexandre. “The response was specific to pain, and was not due to a state of general hyperexcitability to any stimuli.”

Surprisingly, common analgesics like ibuprofen did not block sleep-loss-induced pain hypersensitivity. Even morphine lost most of its efficacy in sleep-deprived mice.

The results suggested that patients using these drugs for pain relief might have to increase their dose to compensate for lost efficacy due to sleep loss, thereby increasing their risk for side effects.

In contrast, both caffeine and modafinil, drugs used to promote wakefulness, successfully blocked the pain hypersensitivity caused by both acute and chronic sleep loss. Interestingly, the compounds had no pain-relieving effects in mice who weren’t sleep-deprived.

Meditation has also been found to be more effective than drugs to ease chronic back pain. Scientists at Seattle’s Group Health Research Institute found that eight weekly sessions of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), such as meditation and yoga, relieved pain and improved ease of movement better than conventional care, such as over-the-counter pain killers.

Cognitive behavior therapy, which taught people to change the way they felt about pain, also helped improve both pain and ease of movement better than conventional care. 

According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain.

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Dr. Alex Jimenez DC, MSACP, CIFM*, IFMCP*, ATN*, CCST
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