Can Sleep Deprivation Make You More Vulnerable to Pain?

It’s the holidays and if you have pain and are a parent of little ones, you’ve likely lost some sleep. It’s just part of the season. However, new research is showing how sleep impacts pain. It turns out that lack of sleep is like throwing gasoline on a pain campfire. In addition, it may also be impacting your stem cells.

How Long We Should Be Sleeping vs. How Long We Are Sleeping

According the CDC, during any 24-hour period, we should be sleeping at least 7 of those hours (anything less than 7 hours is defined as short sleep duration). Yet in the U.S., we seem to have a modern epidemic of chronic sleep deprivation. Here in Colorado, comparatively speaking, we fare well at less than 30% of adults getting less than 7 hours of sleep, while in states such as New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Georgia, 38–44% of adults aren’t getting a full 7 hours. In addition, the CDC also reports that those getting less than 7 hours were more likely to have at least one of ten chronic health conditions, and heavily topping that list was arthritis, with 29% of those reporting less than 7 hours of sleep carrying a diagnosis of arthritis.

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One Potential Link Between Chronic Sleep Deprivation and Chronic Pain

The new study consisted of a test group that was restricted to only four hours of sleep for five out of seven nights each week for three weeks. A control group was allowed eight hours of sleep every night during the same three weeks. The groups then switched, and the same protocol was followed.

The result? When sleep restricted, the subjects showed an increased vulnerability to pain evidenced by significant alterations in a variety of pain indicators: pain intensity, pain threshold, and pain tolerance. Researchers suggested, in conclusion, that chronic sleep deprivation decreases pain tolerance and thresholds and increases sensitivity, meaning we are more prone to pain if we lack sleep. Additionally, the recovery sleep period (the two full nights following five 4-hour nights) wasn’t enough to fully resolve the increase in the subjects’ vulnerability to pain. In other words, to reset pain sensitivity, it takes more than a couple of nights of full sleep to make up for a chronic lack of sleep.

Sleep Deprivation Isn’t Just About the Pain

Sleep is imperative to our mental health, recharging our brain batteries and self-purging all the trivial memories from our brain to make room for the important ones. Sleep is also critical to our physical health as it re-energizes our bodies and combats fatigue. While there may be a direct link between sleep deprivation and pain, the lack of sleep has been associated with many more issues, including depression, diabetes, and even heart disease. Even our youth aren’t immune to the effects of sleep deprivation as one study found that young athletes who slept less than eight hours per night suffered more sports injuries than their peers who slept greater than eight hours per night.

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How Does Sleep Impact Stem Cells?

Sleep can impact stem cells in several ways. One is that poor sleep causes the stem cells in visceral fat (the type that lives between the organs that’s bad for you) to multiply, making more fat. Another impact is that stem cells are mobilized out of the bone marrow in obstructive sleep apnea (snoring). Animal models show that they function to reduce inflammation in the body caused by the apnea. For patients undergoing a bone marrow stem cell procedure, this may mean that snoring depletes stem cells from the bone marrow. In addition, another study demonstrated that a normal circadian rhythm (day-night cycle) is important for stem cells to maintain their ability to repair tissue. This may mean that this disrupted sleep likely reduces the effectiveness of stem cell therapies.

The upshot? Whatever is causing your pain, if it’s depriving you of sleep, addressing it sooner rather than later is important for relieving your pain and also for taking charge of your mental and physical health. In addition, if you’re trying to use stem cells to help your orthopedic problems, this works both ways. Getting better sleep may help your procedure be more successful!




Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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NOTE: This blog post provides general information to help the reader better understand regenerative medicine, musculoskeletal health, and related subjects. All content provided in this blog, website, or any linked materials, including text, graphics, images, patient profiles, outcomes, and information, are not intended and should not be considered or used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please always consult with a professional and certified healthcare provider to discuss if a treatment is right for you.

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