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Sleep your way to less pain?

Back and other pain can be reduced by getting regular, solid sleep, among other things, says new study

By Christine L. Chen Dec 19, 2012 7:18PM

On the days I don’t sleep as well, a 13-year old spine condition of mine feels worse.  Now, a possible explanation:  when we sleep less, we feel more pain. 

It seems a lack of sleep can make you more sensitive to pain. Researchers at Detroit’s Henry Ford Sleep Disorders Hospital measured how much pain subjects felt by holding their fingers to a heat source, and they found that those who had slept more tolerated the pain about 25 percent longer than those who had gotten less sleep. The message from that not-so-fun test: The person who lacks sleep will feel more pain.

Researchers say chronic sleep loss changes the way your body processes pain, increasing inflammation in the body. They also say painkillers aren’t as effective in someone who’s had sleep issues for a long time (like my friend).

Interesting, but I needed a second opinion on this. Paul Christo, MD , a leader in pain management with Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told me: “Sleep deprivation increases levels of inflammatory molecules called cytokines. Sleep can help to restore the cytokines to normal levels and speed recuperation.”

While that explanation is on the molecular level, the impact of pain on America is simply astronomical. More than 100 million of us suffer from chronic pain, which costs $600 billion each year in doctor visits and lost productivity.  Eight out of every 10 people  will experience debilitating back pain over the course of their lives, and 1.2 million people each year will get spine surgery.

I have to say, I feel their pain. For the past 13 years, I’ve been managing my spine condition in lieu of surgery. Two years ago, my naturopath from Bastyr University suggested a few things, including changing the way I use Omega-3 Fish Oil, a natural anti-inflammatory. I used to take a capsule in the morning, but now I take one tablespoon of liquid before bedtime. Within a week, I noticed a difference in physical comfort, and I started sleeping straight through the night – and deeply. It took a little longer to get used to the taste.

It’s all related. If less sleep causes you to feel more pain, and pain can cause you to lose sleep, you’re pretty much stuck in a health-threatening cycle. In addition to feeling more pain, you can gain weight, become clinically depressed, risk high blood pressure and be cranky with your family and unproductive at work. No fun.

As difficult as it might be to rearrange your life and prioritize sleep with a mix of exercising regularly, reducing before-bedtime email, meditating for stress relief, or anything else to optimize your chances of resting regularly, do it. A few life changes could save you a lifetime of pain.

More on Healthy Living

How to sleep better
Signs you have a sleep problem


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