Study: People who regularly consume caffeine may experience less sensitivity to pain

A new study provides evidence that regular caffeine consumption is associated with alterations in the processing of pain signals. The preliminary findings were published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

“New research suggests that diet can be a useful intervention for decreasing pain sensitivity and helping people manage pain. Caffeine is a commonly consumed by millions of people as part of their regular diets,” said Burel R. Goodin, an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and corresponding author of the study.

“Caffeine consumed acutely in a laboratory environment or as a medication additive has known properties that help alleviate pain. However, relatively little is known about the potential impact of dietary caffeine consumption on the experience of pain. We wanted to address this gap in current knowledge.”

The study of 62 healthy adults found greater dietary caffeine consumption was associated with decreased sensitivity to heat and pressure.

The participants in the study kept daily caffeine consumption diaries and daily sleep diaries for one week. They also wore a small actimetry sensor on their wrist to monitor their sleep activity. Then, the participants underwent pain sensitivity testing.

The researchers found that each additional 100 mg of daily caffeine consumed was associated with a 5°C increase in heat pain threshold and a 31.2 kilopascal increase in pressure pain threshold. The heat was applied to the forearm and gradually increased, while the pressure was applied to the trapezius.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations. For one, the study used a cross-sectional methodology, preventing the researchers from drawing inferences about cause and effect.

“Our study does not allow one to conclude that dietary caffeine consumption causes less pain. This is because our results are correlational,” Goodin explained.

Sleep was not associated with pain sensitivity. But that could be because the participants had relatively good sleep quality.

“Additional randomized and controlled studies are need to definitively determine whether a diet that includes regular caffeine consumption prevents the development of pain, or minimizes pain once it has already developed,” Goodin said.

Consuming an inordinate amounts of caffeine is also probably not a good strategy for dealing with pain.

“More is not necessarily better. Research suggests that consuming more than 400mg/day of caffeine can have negative effects on mood and physical health. Therefore, people need to be mindful of the exact amounts of caffeine they are consuming on a daily basis,” Goodin remarked.

The study, “Higher habitual dietary caffeine consumption is related to lower experimental pain sensitivity in a community-based sample,” was authored by Demario S. Overstreet, Terence M. Penn, Sarah T. Cable, Edwin N. Aroke, and Burel R. Goodin.