UC Berkeley researchers discover how sleep deprivation amplifies pain

An unmade bed
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UC Berkeley researchers published a study Monday in the Journal of Neuroscience describing the links between sleep deprivation and pain amplification.

Though it is common knowledge that sleep deprivation amplifies pain, this study is one of the first to explain how sleep deprivation amplifies pain, according to lead researcher and doctoral candidate Adam Krause.

“We identified changes in the brain that we believe are the mechanism for sleep deprivation increasing pain,” Krause said.

The study was conducted by recruiting 25 healthy participants and using heat tolerance to record each participant’s threshold for pain. Heat levels were applied to the lower left leg, and a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner was used to observe brain activity.

The procedure was then repeated after “a sleepless night,” and the researchers found that the vast majority of participants had significantly lower pain thresholds. The article added that even small changes in sleep correlated with changes in pain sensitivity.

According to Krause, sleep deprivation affects brain activity by triggering activity in the somatosensory cortex, which receives and reads pain signals, amplifying pain. How the brain deals with pain is also affected because of decreases in activity in the two parts of the brain that examine pain signals and coordinate natural painkillers including endorphins.

The study has many implications in hospitals, according to Krause. Campus professor of neuroscience and psychology Matthew Walker told Berkeley News that the study supports a theory that sleep should have more priority in patient care.

“Oftentimes patients are woken up in the middle of the night to perform tests that aren’t always important,” Krause said. “We might need to rethink whether it’s more important for the patient to sleep or conduct these tests.”

The study also has implications outside of the hospital, according to Krause, who said that a lack of sleep after a painful experience may lead to chronic persistent pain. Two out of three chronic pain patients suffer from repeated sleep disruption, according to a 2015 poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation. Krause added that improving sleep could halt or reduce the transition to a state of chronic pain.

“The most effective treatment of pain right now is the use of narcotics and opioids, but the main concern about these drugs is that they may not be effective for long-term pain and also disrupt sleep,” Krause said. “We wouldn’t aim to eliminate them, but if we can decrease the dosage and replace it with sleep, it could be better in the long term.”

Yao Huang is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Yhoneplus.