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Sleep problems may increase risk of fibromyalgia

Nov. 14, 2011

By Patricia Nicholson

Women with sleep problems may have more than triple the risk of developing fibromyalgia compared to women who sleep well, results of a new study suggest. The association between sleep problems and fibromyalgia was especially strong among women ages 45 and older.

Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes chronic musculoskeletal pain, and predominantly affects women (about 90 per cent of people with fibromyalgia are women). Its causes are complex, but it is more likely to develop in middle age. Many people with fibromyalgia have sleep problems, but researchers have not known whether these problems resulted from the condition, or may have been a pre-existing risk factor.

To probe the association between sleep problems and fibromyalgia, researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology used data on 12,350 Norwegian women ages 20 and older. The women all answered a health questionnaire and had a physical examination at the beginning of the study, and again 10 years later. None of the women had fibromyalgia, musculoskeletal pain or movement disorders at the start of the study.

By the end of the study, there were 327 cases of fibromyalgia.

The researchers found that women with sleep problems were significantly more likely to develop fibromyalgia than those who did not. They also found a strong relationship between fibromyalgia risk and severity of sleep problems, and particularly high risks in women ages 45 and older.

Compared to women with no trouble sleeping, the overall risk of developing fibromyalgia was almost doubled in women who reported sometimes having sleep problems, and more than tripled (3.4-fold risk) in women who reported having sleep problems often or all the time.

For women 45 and over, those who sometimes had sleep problems had more than 2.5 times the fibromyalgia risk of women with no sleep problems. This increased to a 5.4-fold risk for women who often or always had sleep problems.

Sleep problems were still a significant risk factor for women under 45, but not as great as in older women (1.85 times the risk for women who sometimes had sleep problems, and triple the risk in those who had frequent sleep problems).

The study authors discuss several aspects of sleep deprivation that may contribute to an increased risk for fibromyalgia. These include inflammatory responses and affects on the body’s ability to modulate pain.

The study was published online in Arthritis and Rheumatism on Nov. 14, 2011.


Read more on sleep problems:

Waking up to the dangers of sleep apnea

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  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital