Chronic Pain & Sleep Apnea: Is There A Link?
July 18, 2011
Here’s a shocking statistic put out by the National Academy of Sciences—that 116 million Americans (37%) suffer from chronic pain. That’s more than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined. The article in the New York Times emphasizes the importance of more recognition of this condition by doctors. However, I doubt we’re ever going to make a significant dent in treating chronic pain unless we deal with their sleep issues.
It’s easy to argue that chronic pain can negatively affect your sleep quality. However, you can also argue that poor sleep can predispose you to chronic pain, once you experience a trigger (such as an accident, trauma, weight gain, or an operation). It’s been shown that poor sleep can lower your pain thresholds: Sleep deprived people were found to pull their fingers from a hot environment much quicker than people who had normal sleep. What this means is that the less quality or quantity of sleep you have, the more likely you’ll sense pain at very low levels.
If you think about the total number of people with obstructive sleep apnea (and even UARS), it’s probably about 1/4 to 1/3 of the population. Coincidence?
One general concept that Dr. Christian Guilleminault of Stanford describes is that sleep apnea patients have diminished nervous systems, whereas upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS) patients have intact nervous systems. In fact, I would argue that people with UARS have hypersensitive nervous systems. These are also the people who are overly sensitive to weather changes, chemicals, fumes, perfumes, odors and smoke. So perhaps people who are predisposed to chronic pain also have UARS.
Is it just coincidence that most of the patients that I see who have some sort of chronic pain also can’t sleep on their backs, have had excessive dental extractions, or have a parent that snores heavily? Most people with UARS can’t (or prefer not to) sleep on their backs, since that causes the tongue to fall back from gravity. Excessive dental extractions (usually from modern orthodontics) contracts the oral cavity space, leaving less room for the tongue, especially when in deep sleep, causing more frequent obstructions and arousals. As the person with UARS moves up the continuum, they’re more likely to progress into obstructive sleep apnea (like one or both parents).
If you’re truly committed to treating chronic pain patients, you have to simultaneously treat any underlying sleep-breathing problems. Giving sleeping pills just won’t cut it.