When you're physically hurting, what do you do? Just push through? Pop a pill or monitor yourself with a wearable device? While those aren't necessarily awful depending on the root and level of the discomfort, you might do better if you heed the old advice to sleep it off.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley already knew from previous studies and anecdotal evidence that pain can interfere with sleep. But they wanted to know more about how it worked in the opposite direction--how does sleep influence our perception of pain and our ability to manage it?

To figure it out, the researchers conducted a pain study with two dozen healthy adults. With the participants well rested, the researchers applied uncomfortable levels of heat to the participants' legs while the participants were in fMRI scanners. Then the researchers repeated the procedure with the participants suffering some sleep deprivation.

The tests revealed that neural mechanisms involved in picking up, interpreting and responding to pain are thrown out of whack when you don't get enough shuteye. More specifically, the somatosensory cortex, which receives sensory input and, therefore, influences what you physically are able to feel, ramps up. Pain sensitivity goes up as a result. But at the same time, the nucleus accumbens, which helps boost the production of pain-dulling dopamine, cools off. The insula also slows down, making it hard for your brain to evaluate your pain signals and put them in the context necessary for an appropriate response.

As a follow up, the researchers surveyed more than 230 adults, finding that even minor changes to nightly sleep can influence pain sensitivity.

To put this into a work context, research from the University of Alberta indicates that chronic pain doesn't just cause physical discomfort. Two thirds of participants with chronic pain who were tested showed significant disruption to attention and memory, both of which are crucial for you to get through everyday tasks and projects. If you can get more sleep and help your body hold a higher pain threshold, then in theory, it can become cognitively easier to continue to produce high-quality work through health troubles you might have.

Consider, too, that most people who aren't feeling so hot physically understandably tend to get a little grumpy. Sleeping your way to a bit less pain might enable you to interact with others with a more positive attitude, influencing the trust and respect you have on the job.

Looking at the study from a third business angle, health benefits are one of the biggest expenses companies face. Employees who can manage their pain well and feel it less might be able to reasonably reduce the number of times they have to see their physician, which can influence which kind of coverage they opt for from their employers. In fact, the researchers assert as a primary takeaway that patient care would be improved and hospitals able to release patients sooner if uninterrupted sleep were brought to the fore as an integral part of healthcare management.

Related to the above, self-medication, addiction and abuse of painkillers, especially opioids, is at an all-time high. More than 70 percent of those abusing illicit drugs in the United States are employed. Many can be considered "high-functioning" addicts. But workers who develop substance problems because of pain can put themselves and others at risk on the job, experiencing difficulties like tardiness, poor decision making and disciplinary issues. Ensuring that workers get the rest they need might make a difference when it comes to how much pain relief they look for, which might prevent some of these addiction cases.

Lastly, consider the expense of pain management from the sufferer's point of view. In the United States, it's not unusual for prescription medications, including painkillers, even when personally well managed and responsibly provided, to cost hundreds of dollars. While some workers can handle these costs, many live paycheck to paycheck and, even with insurance, experience real financial hardship as they try to feel better. Those hardships can influence everything from the way the worker dresses and gives an impression to their ability to concentrate on their job instead of their jeopardized mortgage.

This research doesn't suggest that sleep alone is adequate medical care--you still have to get to the bottom of what's causing the pain to begin with. But it does suggest that, if you don't feel well, or if your employees don't, it's worth calling it a night or letting them do the same. Open discussion of physical need--not the idea that winners have to "tough it out"--should be your priority.

Published on: Jan 29, 2019
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