Chronic exposure to insufficient sleep alters processes of pain habituation and sensitization.

Research paper by Norah S NS Simpson, Jennifer J Scott-Sutherland, Shiva S Gautam, Navil N Sethna, Monika M Haack

Indexed on: 12 Sep '17Published on: 12 Sep '17Published in: PAIN®


Chronic pain conditions are highly co-morbid with insufficient sleep. While the mechanistic relationships between the two are not understood, chronic insufficient sleep may be one pathway through which central pain-modulatory circuits deteriorate, thereby contributing to chronic pain vulnerability over time. To test this hypothesis, an in-laboratory model of three weeks of restricted sleep with limited recovery (five nights of 4-hour sleep/night followed by two nights of 8-hour sleep/night) was compared to three weeks of 8-hour sleep/night (control protocol). Seventeen healthy adults participated, with fourteen completing both three-week protocols. Measures of spontaneous pain, heat-pain thresholds, cold-pain tolerance (measuring habituation to cold over several weeks), and temporal summation of pain (examining the slope of pain ratings during cold water immersion) were assessed at multiple points during each protocol. Compared to the control protocol, participants in the sleep-restriction/recovery protocol experienced mild increases in spontaneous pain (p<0.05). Heat-pain thresholds decreased following the first week of sleep restriction (p<0.05), but normalized with longer exposure to sleep restriction. In contrast, chronic exposure to restricted sleep was associated with decreased habituation to, and increased temporal summation in response to cold pain (both p<0.05), although only in the last two weeks of the sleep restriction protocol. These changes may reflect abnormalities in central pain-modulatory processes. Limited recovery sleep did not completely resolve these alterations in pain-modulatory processes, indicating that more extensive recovery sleep is required. Results suggest that exposure to chronic insufficient sleep may increase vulnerability to chronic pain by altering processes of pain habituation and sensitization.