Sleep, chronic pain, and opioid risk for apnea

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2018 Dec 20;87(Pt B):234-244. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2017.07.014. Epub 2017 Jul 19.


Pain is an unwelcome sleep partner. Pain tends to erode sleep quality and alter the sleep restorative process in vulnerable patients. It can contribute to next-day sleepiness and fatigue, affecting cognitive function. Chronic pain and the use of opioid medications can also complicate the management of sleep disorders such as insomnia (difficulty falling and/or staying asleep) and sleep-disordered breathing (sleep apnea). Sleep problems can be related to various types of pain, including sleep headache (hypnic headache, cluster headache, migraine) and morning headache (transient tension type secondary to sleep apnea or to sleep bruxism or tooth grinding) as well as periodic limb movements (leg and arm dysesthesia with pain). Pain and sleep management strategies should be personalized to reflect the patient's history and ongoing complaints. Understanding the pain-sleep interaction requires assessments of: i) sleep quality, ii) potential contributions to fatigue, mood, and/or wake time functioning; iii) potential concomitant sleep-disordered breathing (SDB); and more importantly; iv) opioid use, as central apnea may occur in at-risk patients. Treatments include sleep hygiene advice, cognitive behavioral therapy, physical therapy, breathing devices (continuous positive airway pressure - CPAP, or oral appliance) and medications (sleep facilitators, e.g., zolpidem; or antidepressants, e.g., trazodone, duloxetine, or neuroleptics, e.g., pregabalin). In the presence of opioid-exacerbated SDB, if the dose cannot be reduced and normal breathing restored, servo-ventilation is a promising avenue that nevertheless requires close medical supervision.

Keywords: Apnea; Bruxism; Chronic pain; Headache; Insomnia; Management; Opioids; Sleep.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / adverse effects*
  • Chronic Pain / complications*
  • Chronic Pain / drug therapy*
  • Humans
  • Sleep / drug effects
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Sleep Wake Disorders / etiology*


  • Analgesics, Opioid