Many of the patients I see every day would meet the definition of having a pain condition called fibromyalgia. While we’ve been very successful in treating these issues using advanced regenerative medicine techniques, my patients always ask if there’s anything more they can do themselves. Based on recent research, a simple solution may be to get more sleep.
What Is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a widespread pain disorder. In short, fibromyalgia is pain all over but it can also migrate to different parts of the body depending on the day. It can also vary in intensity, being mild one day and so severe the next that even a light touch can feel excruciating. Fibromyalgia isn’t only a physical disease; it can also affect mental function, causing stress and mood dysfunction, and socialization as those with the disease can, at times, become so debilitated, they just can’t interact with others like they used to.
Fibromyalgia is significantly more common in women and can present in many forms, but common symptoms of fibromyalgia include chronic, generalized muscle pain, extreme fatigue, problems sleeping (which we are focusing on today), depression or anxiety, brain fog, and much more.
When I began my career, many years ago, fibromyalgia was a black box. Meaning, nobody had any idea what caused it. However, we now know that it’s caused by overactive nerves. Using this understanding, as well some of our own intuition about what may work, we have been very successful in helping patients recover using advanced regenerative medicine techniques. However, patients always ask me what they can do to help themselves.
Getting More Sleep May Reduce Fibromyalgia Pain
Fibromyalgia is typically associated with atrophy, or wasting away, of the cortical gray matter. The new study focused specifically on the effect of sleep on the cortical thickness of the gray matter in the brains of fibromyalgia patients. In other words, what impact, if any, does more/better sleep have on the cortical thickness in those with fibromyalgia? The results? After eight weeks of sleep therapy, cortical atrophy slowed and, in some, even reversed in fibromyalgia patients. Interestingly, subjects in a comparative pain-therapy group during the same time period were found to have an increase in thinning, or atrophy, of the cortical gray matter. So focusing on sleep resulted in positive changes in the brain, while cognitive behavioral therapy for pain had the opposite effect.
What This Study Means for the Biopsychosocialists and PNE Chronic Pain Deniers
I’ve blogged extensively about how a new trend in physical therapy education is focusing on an old concept from the ’80s. This treatment is called pain neuroscience education (PNE) and is based on the idea that while these sensitized nerves are real, the perception of the pain is voluntary. Basically, through education, you can talk patients out of being impacted by pain. While there is scant data to prove that this works, this recent study suggests it doesn’t. Meaning, when the study authors focused on the psychology of pain and trying to provide patients education on how not to be impacted, the cortical thinning worsened. When they focused on teaching people how to get better sleep, the cortical thinning slowed or improved. Hence, a physical intervention improved the disease, but trying to talk people out of the pain didn’t work.
The upshot? If you have widespread pain or really any chronic pain condition, please work on your sleep. Other studies have shown poor sleep in chronic pain patients, and sometimes to get there you need to have your problems treated using regenerative medicine. Other times, just focusing on simple things, like getting to bed early, reducing distractions (like phones and computer screens), and getting tested and treated for sleep apnea, can make a big difference. Either way, your body will thank you if you get that 8–10 hours of sleep a night that we’re all supposed to get but that many of us can never master!