Sleep Issues in Young Adults May Predict Future Chronic Pain

The study included 1750 participants and had a 3-year follow up period.

Sleep problems in young adults may predict chronic pain and worsening pain severity over time, a new study published in PAIN suggests. The presence of pain however, was generally not a predictor of worsening sleep problems during the transition between adolescence and young adulthood.

Researchers from the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, reported that early detection and treatment of sleep problems may help reduce future problems with pain in some young adult groups. Dr Irma J. Bonvanie and colleagues conducted a follow-up study of 1750 young adults aged 19-22 years to look at “bidirectional” relationships between sleep problems and pain, including musculoskeletal, headache, and abdominal pain. They compared the associations between the genders and also evaluated the mediating effects of anxiety, fatigue, and physical activity. The follow-up period was for 3 years.

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Data showed half of the young adults who had sleep problems at baseline still had them 3 years later. Patients with sleep problems were more likely to have chronic pain, especially more severe musculoskeletal, headache, and abdominal pain. These patients were also more likely to have new or persistent chronic pain 3 years later. At follow-up, 38% of young adults with severe sleep problems at initial evaluation presented with chronic pain vs. 14% of those without initial sleep problems.

The correlation between sleep problems and pain was more pronounced in women vs. men. Fatigue was a modest mediating factor whereas anxiety and lack of physical activity did not significantly contribute. Researchers added that abdominal pain was the only type associated with long-term increase in sleep problems; it did not predict headache severity in either gender.

Overall, study findings suggest a significant association between sleep problems and chronic pain as well as specific pain types. Sleep problems “may be an additional target for treatment and prevention strategies in female young adults with chronic pain and musculoskeletal pain,” the authors concluded.


Bonvanie IJ, Oldehinkel AJ, Rosmalen JG, Janssens KA. Sleep problems and pain: a longitudinal cohort study in emerging adults. Pain. 2016;157(4):957-63.

This article originally appeared on Neurology Advisor