Insomnia can cause fibromyalgia

November 24, 2011 - 08:40

Women who frequently have sleeping problems run a higher risk of developing the rheumatoid disorder fibromyalgia, characterised by muscle pain and headaches.

A vicious circle: Sleep disorders can give you pain, which again makes it harder to sleep soundly. (Photo: Colourbox)

Lots of people are plagued in varying degrees with aching muscles and bones. Some of the worst off have chronic pains all over.

This is one of the main criteria for being diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which strikes between three and five percent of the adult population.

“We already knew that patients suffering from such chronic general pains often have additional complications such as sleep problems,” says Paul Jarle Mork at the Department of Human Movement Science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

But is lousy sleep a risk factor for developing fibromyalgia or is it the result of the pains?

To find out more Mork and his colleague Tom Ivar Lund Nilsen examined data from upwards of 12,000 female participants in the NTNU’s longitudinal health study, HUNT.

Quintupled risk

None of the women had complained about pains when the study started. But some of them reported difficulties with sleep.

Mork explains that they observed what had happened to the women with and without sleeping problems ten years later.

The researchers found out that sleep problems constitute a major risk factor for chronic muscular and skeletal complaints, even after making allowances for other factors such as physical activities, smoking, age, obesity and mental health.

“The connection is really strong. For those who are over 45 years old and admit to frequently or invariably having sleep problems, we see a quintupling of the risk of developing fibromyalgia, as against persons who sleep well", says Mork.

Sleep can’t be ignored

“The results of the study give us good reason to take sleep problems seriously,” says Mork.

He points out that other illnesses also seem to link to how well we sleep. New research from the HUNT study shows that sleep problems also seem to have an impact on risk for cardiovascular disease.

“If insomnia can be detected and treated early, we might be able to reduce the risk of fibromyalgia and other chronic illnesses,” says Mork.

It’s still unclear why sleeping problems appear to raise the chances of developing the neurosensory disorder. But previous research points toward a possible clue.

Several possible factors

Experimental studies have shown that when people are deprived of sleep they quickly get a lower pain threshold and higher levels of certain markers of an inflammation. These indicate a body infection.

It’s possible that the same mechanism plays a role in the development of fibromyalgia. Maybe sleep problems cause a low-grade infection that activates our pain system. As time passes this might lead to the development of chronic muscular and skeletal pains such as fibromyalgia, according to Mork.

He points out however, that many other factors are involved too. And not everyone who suffers from fibromyalgia has sleep problems, nor do insomniacs always encounter chronic aches and pains.

“This could be a vicious circle: Sleep disorders raise the risk of problems with pains, which again make it harder to sleep soundly,” says Mork.

He says that is why it’s so important to treat sleep problems. And he is not thinking in terms of sleeping pills. You can actually do a lot on your own using common sense:

• Avoid caffeine the final hours before you go to bed. Remember that the stimulant lasts much longer than people think – up to 5-6 hours after you had your last cup of coffee.
• Get regular exercise, but not right before bed.
• Don’t work on a computer right before hitting the sack.
• Don’t watch movies or engage in any other activities that move you emotionally within an hour before retiring.
• Go to bed and get up at the same times every day, also on weekends.
• Make sure your bedroom is quiet and has the right temperature.

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Read the article in Norwegian at forskning.no

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Translated by
Glenn Ostling