Occupational Health & Safety

Study Links Hospital Workers' Sleep Deficiency to Pain

Some of the authors are investigators with the Harvard Center for Work, Health and Wellbeing, one of four NIOSH Centers of Excellence.

The NIOSH Science Blog recently featured a post summarizing a study of sleep deficiency and pain experienced by hospital workers. The study, published in the July 2012 issue of the American Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, concludes sleep deficiency (including short sleep duration and insomnia) is significantly associated with these workers' pain and difficulty performing tasks.

The authors of the blog entry, Glorian Sorensen, Ph.D., MPH, and Orfeu M. Buxton, Ph.D., are among the nine authors of the paper published by the journal. Sorensen is director of the Center for Community-Based Research at Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Buxton is assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. They and some of their colleagues on the study are investigators with the Harvard Center for Work, Health and Wellbeing, one of four Centers of Excellence to Promote a Healthier Workforce that were funded last year by NIOSH. (The others centers are located at the University of Connecticut/University of Massachusetts in Lowell, Mass.; the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Ore.; and the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa.)

The researchers conducted a survey of hospital patient care workers, reporting in the abstract of their AJOEM paper that it had a 79 percent response rate. Of 1,572 respondents (90 percent were women, mean age 41 years), 57 percent reported sleep deficiency, 73 percent reported pain in past three months, 33 percent reported work interference, and 18 percent reported functional limitation.

"We know that decreased sleep duration and extended shifts in healthcare workers are linked to workplace injuries," Sorensen and Buxton wrote in their blog post. "The effects of decreased sleep on pain in the workplace are less clear."

They noted the pain caused by sleep deprivation may affect productivity or the ability to perform demanding work, such as patient handling. "This study is in agreement with a growing body of research linking poor sleep with pain," they wrote. "For example, laboratory studies have shown that restricting sleep duration can increase reports of new pain, consistent with the higher pain reports associated with insomnia. Other studies have shown that sleep-deprived persons respond differently to a standard pain stimulus. These findings are particularly noteworthy given the high risk of musculoskeletal disorders, pain and injury prevalent among health care workers. The annual incidence of back injury and pain in the nursing workforce ranges between 30% and 75%. Nursing aides suffer more days away from work for back pain than any other occupation."

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