Patient lying in bed with postoperative pain in hospital room talking to doctor.

A good amount of sleep before surgery can reduce postoperative pain.

While surgery is necessary to prevent a condition, illness, or injury from getting worse, it still doesn’t make it any easier dealing with the pain that comes afterward. Postoperative pain can sometimes feel unbearable. Medications are able to reduce the pain but you’ll need all the help you can get to make the recovery process less stressful.

You’re probably wondering what other options are available. Well, if the University of Michigan’s Department of Anesthesiology is to be believed, a good night’s sleep and caffeine can make the pain go away. Sleep is always a major factor when it comes to how your body recovers. Let’s find out what how postoperative pain is affected by your sleep quality.

Looking Into Postoperative Pain

“Postoperative pain control is challenging,” says Giancarlo Vanini, M.D., a research assistant professor in the Department of Anesthesiology at Michigan Medicine. “There is a general long-standing interest in the relationship between sleep and pain, and we know that both are reciprocally related.”

“Several studies demonstrate that pre- and postoperative sleep disturbances worsen pain and, more importantly, predict the onset of long-term postoperative pain. However, while the relationship between sleep and pain is well-known, its underlying mechanisms remain unclear.”

“Based on previous studies published by our group and others, we predicted that a brief sleep disturbance prior to surgery would worsen postoperative pain,” Vanini says. “But, we wanted to examine if there were any treatments or interventions that could aid to minimize the effect of sleep loss by reducing the severity of pain experienced after surgery.”

The Impact of Sleep Loss

To understand the dangers of sleep loss, let’s look at the impact it can have on your body. A lack of sleep, over a long period of time, can lead to a series of health problems. Sleep deprivation has long been associated with heart conditions like heart disease, heart attack, stroke, heart failure and more. Many sleep disorders are also known to put you at risk for stroke and diabetes.

Another part of the body that sleep loss can target is the mind. Sleep conditions like insomnia can put a tremendous amount of stress on the brain. Depression, anxiety, and stress are not uncommon among patients dealing with this condition. Sleep is also critical to your brain’s ability to process information. When people sleep normally, the mind is able to process our experiences into memories. The less sleep one receives, the harder it is for them to think, learn, and recall crucial information.

Using Caffeine as a Substitute for Sleep

While drinking caffeinated beverages is not the same as going to sleep, it can mimic its effects on our body. When we receive proper sleep, the body feels energize and no longer crave more sleep. The same effect happens with caffeine. A sleep inducer known as adenosine has no effect when the body has caffeine in its system. The body feels awake and focused, which is why many people choose to drink coffee in the morning.

Dr. Vanini and his team wanted to know how effective caffeine is at mimicking the effects of sleep. More specifically, they wanted to know if drinking caffeine could reduce postoperative pain like sleep does. “Insufficient sleep enhances pain perception, so we reasoned that caffeine might also be useful for reversing the increase in pain caused by sleep loss,” says Dr. Vanini. “We liked the potential of this intervention because it is simple and virtually everyone is familiar with caffeine.”

Results of the Study

Using test rats, the team sought to see the effects of sleep deprivation before surgery on postoperative pain, and how caffeine affects postoperative pain. Their hypothesis was right. The rats who didn’t receive enough sleep experienced more pain after surgery. Even worse, their recovery times took longer than it should have. However, the results were completely different for the rats that had caffeine in their system after surgery.

“The effect of sleep deprivation on pain sensitivity in operated and intact rats was virtually eliminated by pharmacologically blocking the action of adenosine in a brain region in the anterior hypothalamus known to regulate sleep, which is connected to major pain-related areas,” Dr. Vanini says.

“Caffeine blocked the increase in surgical pain caused by previous sleep loss,” Vanini says. “Surprisingly, the data showed that this is not due to caffeine’s analgesic properties.

“Furthermore, it looks like caffeine was effective only in those rats that underwent sleep deprivation before surgery. We think that caffeine might prevent the increase in pain sensitivity by blocking part of the neurochemical changes induced by sleep deprivation in specific brain areas that control sleep and wakefulness, and project to pain-related sites.”