It’s well known that pain and sleep are interconnected. Pain is associated with worsened sleep and lack of adequate sleep is associated with increased pain. But, according to a new study, it’s possible that for young adults, sleep problems may actually predict the onset or continuance of chronic pain.
Overview of Research
The study, titled “Sleep Problems and Pain: A Longitudinal Cohort Study in Emerging Adults,” was published in the journal PAIN, the official publication of the International Association for the Study of Pain. The researchers followed more than 1,750 men and women for three years. Their ages ranged from 19 to 22.
Emerging adulthood – a period typically defined as between 18-25 years old – is a period of both psychosocial and behavioral fluctuations, which include altered sleep patterns. In fact, around 30% of individuals in this age group experience at least one sleep problem (including needing sleeping pills, waking up hours early or not being able to fall asleep, among others). And while there have been studies showing the correlation between sleep problems and pain levels in adults, how these two factors correlate during emerging adulthood is less well known.
Researchers determined that sleep problems were clearly associated with chronic pain, musculoskeletal pain, headache and abdominal pain severity among young adults. Plus, sleep problems at the beginning of the study significantly increased the likelihood that participants would have new or persistent chronic pain three years later. Overall, 38% of those who had sleep problems at the study onset had chronic pain at follow-up. Only 14% of those without sleep problems exhibited chronic pain three years later. This relationship was seen more in women than in men.
The researchers also concluded that pain had a much smaller effect on sleep, with only abdominal pain sufferers reporting statistically significant sleep problems three years later. All of these findings mirror those in separate studies on both adolescents and middle-aged adults, meaning that sleep problems seem to predict pain – not just act as a precursor to it – regardless of age.
It was also found that depression, anxiety and a lack of physical activity were not significant factors in these relationships, although fatigue did play a part.
Implications for the Future
This research provides an important avenue for the treatment and prevention of chronic pain. By identifying at-risk young adults early – and by addressing their sleep problems before the onset or worsening of pain symptoms – we may be able to reduce future pain problems in some emerging adults, especially in women.
 Bonvanie, Irma J., Albertine J. Oldehinkel, Judith G. M. Rosmalen, and Karin A. M. Janssens. “Sleep Problems and Pain.” PAIN 157, no. 4 (April 2016): 957–63.