March 02, 2013
by: David Gutierrez
Getting a couple more hours of sleep each night is more effective than codeine at reducing the body's sensitivity to pain, according to a study published in the journal SLEEP.
The study was the first to examine the pain-related effects of getting extra sleep, although other studies have shown that sleep deprivation can lead to decreased pain tolerance.
"Work at Harvard has explored the effect of sleep deprivation on pain perception and found that the threshold for pain perception is reduced under those circumstance," said Adrian Williams of King's College London, who was not involved in the study.
The study was conducted on 18 healthy, pain-free adults who were classified as sleepy using the multiple sleep latency test (MSLT). Participants were assigned either to maintain their normal sleep habits for four nights, or to spend 10 hours in bed every night during the same time period. The researchers found that on average, participants in the extended sleep group got 1.8 more hours of sleep per night than participants in the habitual sleep group. They also scored higher on tests of daytime alertness.
At both the beginning and end of the study, the participants were instructed to place a finger on a radiant heat source in order to test pain sensitivity. Participants in the extended sleep group experienced a 25 percent increase in the amount of time that they were able to keep their finger on the hot surface. This indicated an even greater reduction in pain sensitivity than the researchers observed (in a prior study) in participants who took 60 mg of the narcotic painkiller codeine.
It is the first time that scientists have demonstrated that extra sleep can reduce the pain sensitivity of people suffering from mild but chronic sleep deprivation.
"Our results suggest the importance of adequate sleep in various chronic pain conditions or in preparation for elective surgical procedures," lead researcher Timothy Roehrs said. "We were surprised by the magnitude of the reduction in pain sensitivity, when compared to the reduction produced by taking codeine."
An easy fix
Although some sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy, arise from physiological problems, Roehrs said, the majority of sleep deprivation cases can simply be explained by people not spending enough time sleeping and in bed. Fortunately, such people have a very easy fix for their sleep deprivation and all the problems it causes: sleep more. Even a few days of getting more sleep can lead to dramatic benefits.
"The results of the current study indicate that a relatively short bedtime extension, four nights, is sufficient to provide benefit for alertness and pain sensitivity for individuals with this level of excessive sleepiness," he said.
Sleep deprivation can cause a number of health problems, and it appears to be on the rise. Although the average U.S. resident got approximately eight hours of sleep per night in the 1960s, that average had fallen to seven hours by 2005. Some experts estimate that as much as 25 percent of the population is now sleep deprived.