While painkillers and opioids are often prescribed to help people deal with pain that disrupts sleep, it turns out they could actually increase the likelihood of a restless night and increase the risk of chronic sleep conditions.
New research shows that while opioids can reduce pain, patients usually only report small improvements in sleep quality in the short-term. What’s more is there’s limited and poor-quality research to support claims that painkillers help people achieve a better night’s sleep and there’s not enough research to assess the benefits and risks of using painkillers to improve sleep quality.
The new study, published in the Sleep Medicine Reviews Journal, acknowledges that sleep disruption is a frequent issue for people dealing with chronic pain. Restless nights can increase pain and in what’s described by researchers as a “vicious cycle”, pain can often cause sleepless nights.
Researchers conducted a comprehensive systematic review of existing literature to examine the impact opioids have on sleep quality. Combining the results of 18 previous studies, it was found that patients report small improvements in sleep quality when using opioids, but didn’t see improvements in deep or substantial sleep.
Some of the studies noted calmer sleep and less movement, but didn’t examine the wider impact of opioid therapy such as functioning the next day. When these factors were taken into consideration, sedation and daytime sleepiness were actually frequent and indicative of a poor sleep at night.
Read more: Australia’s big problem with chronic pain
The study found that opioids can impact the brain mechanism that controls breathing and can increase the risk of sleep apnoea – a sleep condition where people experience an obstruction in breathing which causes snoring, dry mouth and problems breathing.
It also found that insomnia is 42 per cent more likely to be experienced in people who are prescribed opioids rather than other medications. Researchers are now calling for better quality researcher into the effects of painkillers on sleep quality.
“The benefits of opioids on managing chronic pain in the short term is well-evidenced,” study co-author Harbinder Sandhu said in a statement. “But we have not seen long-term benefits in managing pain and the effect on sleep is unknown, results of the study will help to inform future interventions in opioid pain management.”
Researchers said that assessing the risks and benefits of opioid use should be discussed with patients before they’re prescribed. In addition to the potential to cause sleep problems, other side effects include constipation, nausea, itchy skin, poor appetite, confusion and dependence in some cases.
People with chronic pain should always discuss these side effects with a health professional and whether there are other treatments that can help people sleep better.
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