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How does sleep affect pain?

Did you know that poor sleep influences your perception and reaction to pain? A recent study  published in the Journal of Neuroscience revealed that sleep may actually make you more sensitive to pain. Matthew Walker et al. (2019) performed a study that illustrated changes in neural processing among sleep deprived individuals. The researchers took functional MRIs (fMRI) of participants’ brains after they slept for eight hours and fMRIs after they were awake for 24-48 hours. In both instances, the participants were also administered pain to their legs in the form of heat. The differences were astounding! What your grandmother always told you about getting a good night’s sleep was true. The study highlighted that a lack of sleep may reduce an individual’s pain threshold. Specifically, after a night of sleep deprivation, the participants in the study demonstrated increased activity in the somatosensory cortex and decreased activity in the insula and striatum of the brain. 

What does this mean? Lack of sleep lowered the pain threshold for categorizing heat as pain. In other words, if you are sleep deprived, your perception of pain is heightened. Thermal stimuli that may not elicit pain after you have received a full night’s rest, may be painful to you if you are sleep deprived.

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