Sleep—The Drug-Free Fix That Works Better Than Ibuprofen

Updated: May 28, 2017

This solution to chronic pain won't cost you a penny.

cellphoneMarjan Apostolovic/ShutterstockYour habit of scrolling through Instagram in bed may not only leave you sleepy the next day but it could also make chronic pain worse, a new study in the journal Nature Medicine shows.

Researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center kept mice awake by entertaining them with toys and activities, mimicking how humans put off bedtime by watching TV or playing on their phones. Don’t miss these other sleep mistakes ruining your rest.

The scientists then timed how long it took the rodents to react to pressure, heat, cold, and capsaicin, a natural compound in spicy peppers that causes that burning sensation. The mice moved away or licked the stinging area quicker when they’d experienced five days of sleep deprivation, signaling that tired mice felt more pain. And it wasn’t just that the mice were jumpier; the rodents didn’t react any faster to loud sounds when they were sleepy.

Because exhaustion could make pain worse, an earlier bedtime could be your first line of defense against chronic pain like osteoarthritis, says study co-author Clifford Woolf, MD, PhD, of Harvard Medical School. “People today often stay up late watching TV, reading, or playing computer games, and our study suggests this lack of sleep may make their pain worse,” he told The Sun. “You don’t need to increase your sleep by much to get the pain-relieving benefits—maybe just an extra hour a night.”

Ibuprofen didn’t do anything to ease the sleep-deprived mice’s pain. Morphine helped a bit, but wasn’t nearly as effective when the mice were tired.

What did help? Making up for that lost sleep was most helpful, seconded by caffeine and similar stimulants. Mice exhibited reduced extra sensitivity to pain when researchers gave them either caffeine or modafinil, a drug meant to keep people awake. Neither of those treatments made a difference to rodents that were fully rested. Check out these other home remedies for back pain and muscle soreness.

coffeeDaxiao Productions/ShutterstockClinical trials are needed to figure out just how much sleep or caffeine would provide pain relief in humans. For now, get to bed early and stick with just a cup or two of coffee in the morning, says Dr. Woolf. “I don’t suggest drinking cup after cup throughout the day because this may make it difficult to sleep at night,” he told The Sun. “There is a trade-off.”

If you go to bed on time and still toss and turn, learn how to fall back asleep in the middle of the night.