Get ready for a shocking statistic: a full one third of American adults suffer from chronic pain. That’s more than all the people who have diabetes, cancer, and heart disease combined. So why don’t we hear more about this population? Diabetes is national news on a weekly basis. There’s information for diabetics on food labels at the grocery store, running nonstop on commercials, and in just about every information packet you’ll ever get at your doctor’s office. But when it comes to chronic pain there is a deafening silence. I think there are several reasons for this dearth of information and attention. First, chronic pain can refer to a wide range of conditions, from migraine headaches to nerve pain to backaches. And in each case, treatments are often lacking.
Another big problem: doctors are extremely hesitant to prescribe narcotic pain medicines. There are good reasons for this, of course. They can be addictive, cause damaging side effects, and are socially stigmatized. But for people with terrible, daily pain, preventing them from getting medicine that can help them may cause more harm than good. For example, I suffer from migraines. I’ve had them since I was a little girl. They’re blindingly painful, last for two full days, and don’t respond to over-the-counter pain medication like Tylenol or ibuprofen. But I’ve never had a doctor prescribe pain medication to treat them. I would only need it for two days a month, not long enough to form a dependency, and I know it would vastly reduce my suffering. But no matter: often patient’s comfort is secondary to substance control policy.
If you talk to chronic pain sufferers, they’ll tell you that most doctors simply don’t take their pain seriously. According to Dr. Philip A. Pizzo, dean of pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine: “If you talk to women, they tell you no one is listening, they tell them they are faking.” But chronic pain is a disease in its own right. So, what can do you? How can you fix something that is so difficult to treat, pin down, and diagnose?
A series of new studies have drawn some fascinating connections between sleep and pain. Namely, that people who get more sleep have less of it. According to one study’s principle investigator, Timothy Roehrs, PhD: “We were surprised by the magnitude of the reduction in pain sensitivity, when compared to the reduction produced by taking codeine.” And you don’t need a lot more sleep for it to make a difference. The extended sleep group in Roehrs’ study slept 1.8 hours more per night. So settle into your comfy mattress, turn off the lights, and sleep yourself healthier. You have nothing to lose but your pain.
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