For many young adults, pain, alcohol/medication use disrupt sleep

Many young adults who appear healthy are plagued by sleep issues at night, according to a new study conducted at Penn State. The study, led by Jennifer Graham, assistant professor of biobehavioral health, found chronic pain and use of alcohol or medications among the leading factors contributing to sleep disruptions for those in the study.

“Most people think that relatively healthy young adults don’t experience chronic pain, but this isn’t true. A large number of young adults who say they are healthy are in reality dealing with pain issues, including chronic pain issues,” said Graham.

The study looked at sleep quality, which includes the amount of sleep, the perception about how restful the sleep is, the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, and sleep disturbances.

Nearly two-thirds of the study’s 362 sample of adults age 18-24 suffered from poor sleep every night. Poor sleep, said Graham, can lead to negative health outcomes. “Sleep is seen as much more disposable by this group than by other groups,” she said. “I’m concerned about that one night of poor sleep that can disrupt certain biomarkers that help initiate sleep and waking, which can lead to a cycle of poorer sleep, depressed mood and fatigue.”

In contrast, a healthy amount of sleep -- most researchers suggest between seven and nine hours each night, said Graham -- can help college-age adults maintain their health and mood. Past research indicates that an adequate amount of sleep can help students deal with stress and academic stress.

Graham categorized participants by type of pain they experienced -- chronic, recent, or none. Of those experiencing chronic pain, 70 percent indicated they suffered from poor sleep; 66 percent of the “recent pain” group and 61 percent of the “no pain” group also reported poor sleep quality.

In her research, Graham was interested in determining what factors affected sleep patterns; in addition to pain, depressed mood and behaviors such as alcohol and medication use were at the top. “If young adults are not paying attention to sleep, stress and alcohol/medication use, they could be putting themselves at risk for chronic diseases and other problems.”

The association between sleep and managing pain could leave some young adults vulnerable to a “vicious cycle,” said Graham. “Poor sleep means you’ll be less able to deal with pain, typically. We also believe  that pain disrupts sleep, and that if a person manages their pain better, their sleep may get better.” Pain severity was strongly associated with sleep quality among those with chronic pain in this study, even after controlling for mood, perceived health and health behaviors.

Alcohol use predicted sleep quality in the study, but only in participants who suffered from chronic pain. Depressed mood was associated with poorer sleep quality, among participants who did not suffer from pain; depressed mood was associated with poor sleep in other groups as well, after controlling for gender.

“It’s reasonable to say that sleep should be taken seriously -- any sleep disruption has its costs,” said Graham.

Findings from Graham’s study appear in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. Katherine Streitel, biobehavioral health graduate student at Penn State at the time of the research, was a co-author on the paper.

This research was funded by the Department of Biobehavioral Health.

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Last Updated October 20, 2010