Brain imaging reveals how sleep deprivation makes pain feel worse

Brain imaging reveals how sleep deprivation makes pain feel worse

Brain imaging reveals how sleep deprivation makes pain feel worse

This evaluates pain signals and places them in context to prepare the body to respond.

In two studies - one in a sleep laboratory and the other online - Matthew Walker and colleagues show how the brain processes pain differently when individuals are sleep deprived and how self-reported sleep quality and pain sensitivity can change night-to-night and day-to-day. "We might need to rethink whether it's more important for the patient to sleep or conduct these tests".

The researchers found that the neural mechanism that picks up pain signals, evaluate them and release natural pain relief are disrupted in human operating on insufficient sleep.

A 2015 National Sleep Foundation poll in the United States found that two in three chronic pain patients suffer from reoccurring sleep disruptions.

Matthew Walker, senior author and a professor of neuroscience and psychology, said that chronic sleeplessness impairs the brain's ability to relieve the feeling naturally.

Deliberate sleep deprivation is rare in the natural world so it may be that no back-up systems have evolved to help restore or tune the brain's pain management system, Dr Walker said.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine states that adults aged 18 to 60 years old should get at least seven hours of sleep per day to achieve optimal well-being.

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And "in two regions called the striatum and the insula, sleep deprivation decreased the activity associated with pain [relief]", he added. The article added that even small changes in sleep correlated with changes in pain sensitivity.

Mr Krause said: 'The results clearly show even very subtle changes in nightly sleep - reductions that many of us think little of in terms of consequences - have a clear impact on your next-day pain burden'.

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 researchers did this by gradually increasing heat levels to the skin of their lower left leg while measuring brain activity in an fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner. Activity in the part of the brain which is responsible for processing pain was noted.

After a full night of sleep, most participants reported feeling heat discomfort at about 111 degrees Fahrenheit.

"This is a critical neural system that assesses and categorizes the pain signals and allows the body's own natural painkillers to come to the rescue", said Krause, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in Walker's Center for Human Sleep Science lab at UC Berkeley. He notes that in short, the study findings suggests that sleep is a natural pain reliever that can help lower pain.

Results of this study, which has been published in Journal of Neuroscience, concluded that at same levels of pain, the brain's response is different based on whether or not one is sleep deprived. "If we can improve sleep conditions in the setting in which patients are most often in pain - the hospital ward - perhaps we can reduce the dosage of narcotic drugs and clear hospital beds sooner", Krause suggested.

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