The inability to get a good night's sleep and awaken feeling refreshed is a common problem for people with fibromyalgia. The question is – are the sleep problems a result of having fibromyalgia or is fibromyalgia the result of having problems sleeping. It's basically a chicken and egg kind of question.
Based on their study reported in the November issue of the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism, researchers at Norwegian University of Science and Technology believe that, at the very least, sleep problems can increase a person's risk of developing FM.
Study Design and Results
The longitudinal study included 12,350 women who were free of fibromyalgia, musculoskeletal pain, and physical impairments at baseline in 1984 to 1986. The researchers followed up with the women 10 years later in 1995 to 1997. At that time, 327 of them had developed FM.
The researchers found that the relative risk of developing FM tripled for women between the ages of 20 and 44 who reported “often” or “always” having sleep problems. For those over 45, the risk was five times greater.
The study authors concluded that there was a strong association between sleep problems and the risk of FM.
This is an interesting study, although I didn't find the results to be particularly surprising. Previous studies have shown that people who are deprived of sleep for several days begin to develop FM-like symptoms. And numerous other studies have demonstrated a link between FM and sleep disorders. This study did, however, look at a much larger group of people over a longer period of time than had been done before, so the results are significant.
There are still many questions left to be answered, though:
- What causes the sleep problems to begin with?
- Is it possible that difficulty sleeping is just the first FM symptom to show up?
- If sleep problems were identified and treated early enough, could FM be prevented?
While this study did control for a number of variables, like depression, there are a few important factors not taken into account, such as menopause and physical illnesses or traumas. Since FM is often triggered by illness or trauma, I think they have to be considered in any study like this.
Since reading this study, I've been trying to think back to see whether sleep problems preceded the onset of my FM. I don't remember having any particular problem falling asleep or staying asleep. Up until the time FM entered my life, I never seemed to require much sleep. Even as a child, I rarely slept more than five or six hours a night and always woke up feeling good.
I have to admit, though, that during the year or two prior to developing FM, my life was so full and I was so active that I tended to shorten my sleep time even more – sometimes as little as two to four hours – so I could get more done. I can't help but wonder whether doing that made me more susceptible to FM.