There are many theories on what causes fibromyalgia, one of which is that it’s actually a sleep disorder. The rheumatologist who diagnosed me with fibromyalgia fell into this category. He was certain that if he could just fix my disrupted sleep, then my symptoms would improve.
After a year of trying various medications, I gave up on his theory. No matter what medication he prescribed to zonk me out, I still woke up exhausted and in pain.
Numerous research studies have documented sleep disturbance in fibromyalgia patients, but one of the most interesting findings is the high rate of sleep apnea. While figures vary by study, an estimated HALF of all fibromyalgia patients have sleep apnea, and most of us don’t even know it.
Sleep apnea is “a disorder in which breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep,” according to the National Sleep Foundation. The most common form is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), in which excess tissue blocks the air or nasal passages, depriving the brain and body of oxygen.
As Adrienne Dellwo with VeryWell.com explains, “When OSA stops your breathing, your blood oxygen levels drop, your heart beats faster, you get a burst of stress hormones and your body rouses you to restart breathing.”
Those affected by sleep apnea may have no idea they’ve stopped breathing, but their sleeping partners probably do. It’s common for the affected party to let out a loud gasp, cough or choking sound when breathing resumes, often waking the person they’re lying beside.
In addition to causing daytime exhaustion, sleep apnea is linked to several serious, life-threatening conditions, including stroke, heart disease, heart failure, high blood pressure, diabetes and sudden death.
Researchers aren’t sure why so many people with fibromyalgia have sleep apnea.
“It’s possible that apnea-caused sleep deprivation contributes to the development of fibromyalgia,” Dellwo writes in an article. “It’s also possible that lax connective tissues associated with fibromyalgia may make airway obstructions more likely.”
As I reviewed the research on the connection between fibromyalgia and sleep apnea, one sentence kept popping up: Fibromyalgia patients should be screened for sleep apnea.
A polysomnogram, often called a sleep study, is the most common tool for diagnosing sleep apnea. This test generally requires the patient to spend the night away from home in a sleep center and can cost more than $1,000.
I had one of these tests a couple of years ago, and let me just say I’m surprised they recovered any sleep data from me at all. I was hooked up to what seemed like thousands of wires, on my head, chest, legs and on and on. Then, I was asked to sleep in a strange bed, in a semi-noisy room, with cameras watching my every move. I even had to ring my sleep clinician to come in and unhook me from my tangle of wires if I had to use the bathroom during the night. It was beyond uncomfortable!
Fortunately, there is a way to test for sleep apnea that doesn’t involve feeling like you’re on an episode of “Big Brother.” Aeroflow Healthcare, a provider of durable medical equipment, offers at-home sleep studies – no doctor’s referral needed! Health insurance often covers the cost.
A trained sleep specialist helps determine the best sleep test for each patient. The patient receives a device to wear while sleeping, which measures blood oxygen levels and pulse rate, as well as their Apnea Hypopnea Index (AHI), the number of times there’s a 10 second or greater pause in breathing each hour. The AHI detects the presence and severity of sleep apnea.
The at-home test only requires four to six hours to complete, and patients get to sleep in the comfort of their own beds. The test is also much more affordable than a sleep-center study.
Once the device is shipped back to Aeroflow, a sleep specialist reviews the collected data and contacts the patient to discuss his or her results and treatment options.
Sleep apnea treatment usually involves the use of a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine or an oral appliance to help keep the airway open while sleeping. While it may take a while to get used to using a CPAP or oral appliance, most patients report their sleep improves once properly treated for sleep apnea. For fibromyalgia patients, getting better quality sleep may also lead to less pain, fatigue and other debilitating symptoms.
Now it’s your turn: What’s your best tip for improving sleep? Share in the comments!