We live in the midst of a quiet but ongoing epidemic of people not getting enough sleep. Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb changed our schedules and life style forever. Then, as if we didn’t have enough to do already, those who brought us the electronic and computer revolutions have also played a role. Doctors who specialize in the study of sleep say that the stimulation of television and computers just before bed can keep us awake even after we’ve turned off the lights, as can smoking and caffeinated drinks.
Doctors at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, MI, now have reported that getting more sleep can reduce a person’s sensitivity to actual, physical pain. They studied healthy volunteers who spent four days getting up to ten hours of sleep each night, compared with those following their usual patterns of less than eight hours. Those on doctor’s orders to sleep more ended up getting almost two hours more sleep per night than the group following their usual habits. Not surprisingly, those who were sleeping more took a little bit longer to fall asleep in the evenings or for naps.
What was surprising with the long sleepers, however, was their response to pain, which was decreased. Like many sensations, pain is an entirely subjective and personal experience. This makes studying it difficult in terms of establishing clear criteria for different levels of pain. One result of this need is the series of ten pictures of faces showing increasing amounts of pain, used by doctors and nurses in daily practice.
If you can’t sleep because of pain, you may need some temporary pain relief initially until the extra sleep benefits kick in. This is something you may want to talk to your doctor about.
The new study used an alternative way of measuring pain: Volunteers placed their fingers on a surface that slowly became warmer – and then hotter. The subjects were free to take their hand away at any time but encouraged to hold it in place for as long as possible until their instincts took over. The researchers recorded how long the time periods of touching were. Those getting the extra two hours of sleep per night could keep their fingers on the hot surface twenty-five percent longer than the others. The researchers state this is similar to the effect of a clinical dose of the analgesic (pain-killer) codeine.
The study was conducted for only four nights and involved 18 volunteers, a relatively small group – but this was the first report of such an effect with extra sleep. One hopes it will be expanded to a more comprehensive study next time, to clarify just how much sleep it takes to adequately handle pain. It would also be interesting to know how strong the sleep effect might be with different types of pain. In the meantime, it seems clear that more sleep is better for pain tolerance.
There are many kinds of pain in life, both physical and emotional. We know that a certain amount is normal and unavoidable, but we of course try to avoid it nonetheless. We can be thankful that sleep allows us not only some hours of direct relief when we’re unconscious but can also help fight off feelings of pain during the daytime as well.
SleepDisorders.com is a patient portal connecting individuals with sleep disorders to sleep physicians in their area. Visit SleepDisorders.com to use the Doctor Finder to find an expert near you.