Lack of Sleep Can Hurt Young Adults—Literally

School is back in session, yet your teen texts into the wee hours. Your college student pulls all-nighters to prep for big exams. You probably know these practices aren’t healthy, but you might not realize the long-term impact these bad habits could have.

A new study from the Netherlands found that young adults who don’t get enough rest, battle insomnia or rely on meds to help them doze off have a greater risk of chronic pain problems three years later. They’re more likely to have persistent musculoskeletal pain, says study co-author Karin Janssens of the University of Groningen. The study, published in the journal PAIN, included 1,753 people ages 19 to 22.

“Sleep problems can lead to increased muscle tension,” says Janssens. “Furthermore, lack of sleep can alter physiological processes, which can decrease the pain threshold.” In other words, poor sleep can make you more sensitive to stimuli so you feel uncomfortable more quickly.

The connection between sleep and pain is “bidirectional,” says Dr. Joseph Ojile, founder and chief executive officer of the Clayton Sleep Institute and clinical professor at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. As the Dutch study found, the worse you sleep, the worse things hurt. But the opposite is true, too: The more discomfort you have to begin with, the worse you’re going to sleep. It can be a vicious cycle.

“I recently saw a young man who’s exhausted because he’s up all night with horrendous back and knee pain,” says Ojile. “He told me he was depressed. How could you not be? You’re already in pain, then your pain threshold gets lower, so you feel even more miserable.”

The Young and the (Less) Restless

Ojile suggests that people may reduce the risk of both mental and physical health problems, including chronic pain, by developing good sleep habits at a young age—ideally starting in early childhood. But if your teen or 20-something has already put sleep aside, don’t despair—it’s not too late to make some changes. A few ideas to help get on track:

  • Make getting ample rest a priority. “Most people age 18 to 25 need seven to nine hours of sleep, but we think less than half of them are getting that amount,” says Ojile.
  • Log off at least an hour before bedtime. Blue light, the kind emitted by a laptop screen or smartphone, has been shown to disrupt circadian rhythms, says Janssens. That can make it harder to drift off, as well as interfere with the quality of sleep.
  • Wake up at same time every day. In a perfect world, your bedtime and wake-up time would be consistent, says Ojile. But when studying and social events prompt teens to stay up later than normal, they should resist the urge to sleep in the next day. Ojile says it’s better to sneak in a 30- to 60-minute nap in the afternoon, which shouldn’t mess with your circadian rhythms as much as if you were to vary your wake-up time.