Insomnia is one of the most common symptoms of Fibromyalgia, and one of the most difficult to cope with, because it has such a widespread effect on daily life.
We all have difficulty sleeping from time to time, whether that’s difficulty falling asleep or trouble staying asleep during the night. But when this happens regularly – even just for a few nights – it’s classed as insomnia. Most of us will experience insomnia at some point, but for most of us, it will be quite short lived. Lots of people experience insomnia for longer periods of time, or for short periods, but more frequently. Those with Fibromyalgia will usually be in this group.
For Fibromites, sleep issues can be intermittent, or long lasting or even constant. They can have difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, and difficulty getting quality sleep even when they are asleep.
There can be lots of reasons for this; for some the pain can prevent them falling asleep. For others, Restless Leg Syndrome will keep them awake. For almost all Fibromites, brainwaves play a major role in sleep issues. Research has shown that those with Fibromyalgia and CFS experience different brain wave patterns during sleep which prevents them from getting a good, quality, restful sleep. Delta brainwaves are associated with deep, dreamless sleep and it’s in this state that sleep becomes restorative. We need plenty of this sleep in order to be able to function at our best.
We all dream at night, usually in 90 minute cycles, and we’re in a theta brainwave pattern when this happens. Research has found that people with Fibromyalgia and CFS seem to spend longer than normal in a theta state, causing more REM, more dreams. We can’t get restorative sleep in this state. Spending longer in a theta state produces more dreams which can become very … odd. “Fibro dreams” is a well known phenomenon amongst Fibromites.
But it’s really this relative lack of delta brainwave patterns that we’re concerned with here. Not only does it reduce our restorative sleep, it has a knock-on effect during the daytime. I remember reading about some research, when I was first diagnosed over 20 years ago, which attempted to measure the problems this particular issue caused. They studied a group of Fibromites in sleep, monitoring brainwave activity and noting symptoms during the day, for a period of time.
And then they studied a group of healthy people with no sleep problems. They also measured their brainwave activity and whether they exhibited any of the typical fibro symptoms. And then they began disrupting the sleep of these healthy people. When, during sleep, they entered a delta state, they woke them up. Each time they woke up, they were allowed to go back to sleep but they were woken up every time they entered a delta state. Within two days, they were all exhibiting comparable symptoms to the Fibromites. And what are these symptoms; how does insomnia affect people?
Well, lack of restful sleep, whether for one night or many, can cause all kinds of difficulties for us. Tiredness is the most obvious one. We’ve all experienced trying to make it through a day at work when we’ve not slept well, and it’s awful. When it happens day after day, night after night, the effect is cumulative. Tiredness becomes something you’d happily settle for, as the bone-deep weariness of chronic fatigue sets in. A tiredness that has to be experienced to be believed. The kind of tiredness that can make simply getting dressed an impossible task because there’s no energy for it.
“Fibro Fog” is another phenomenon that is well known, and it definitely gets worse when you’re suffering from insomnia too. It’s so called because it really is like a fog has descended on your brain, grounding all thoughts. Simple words become impossible to recall, listening to someone talk is unbelievably difficult. A question such as “would you like a cup of tea?” can seem impossible to make sense of, let alone answer.
I remember leading a group one day, and reading a piece from a favourite book. I knew the passage well, but as I read, the words in front of me suddenly made no sense. I knew I recognised them, had read them before, understood them, but I just couldn’t for the life of me remember how to say any of them. I was mortified. Luckily for me, I had an understanding group, but I felt so ashamed that I, an ex-teacher, could not read a simple piece of writing.
Fibro Fog has three components, to my mind. The first is as I’ve described above – this absolute inability to make sense of anything. The second is confusion, a different kind to this first. More of an issue recalling names and details, an issue with memory. And the third is a problem with focus and concentration. Of course, when you can’t remember your own name, or understand a simple question, concentration are hard to come by!
At times, Fibro Fog can be amusing – it can lead to some interesting word choices when you can’t pluck the one you need from the air. The mental gymnastics the mind will do to find words to try and describe what you mean can be very funny. On the whole though, I find it distressing.
Lastly, the big one. The symptom most Fibromites will tell you is the worst of the lot. Pain. Already widespread, debilitating and bloody difficult to treat because it tends not to respond to orthodox pain relief, fibro pain can get much worse if you don’t get a good night’s sleep. Joint stiffness is common and tends to be at its worst in the morning (according to “official sources”; personally I’ve never noticed this – if I wake with joint stiffness, it tends to hang around all day). A bad night’s sleep can increase this stiffness the next day. It’s not the only kind of pain though. I’ve noticed that when I’m really struggling with sleep, my skin is far more sensitive to the touch, headaches increase, and so do random flashes of pain in my limbs.
It’s easy to see that getting a handle on insomnia is an important step in dealing with Fibromyalgia. Of course, you can go the medical route, and many do, with mixed success. But if that doesn’t work for you, or you’d rather not take sleeping tablets there are plenty of other things you can try. You’ve probably tried quite a few of them already. If you’ve had no success, don’t despair. Most sleep remedies in shops only treat occasional insomnia. They’re addressing a different problem.
You might need to try different things before you find the one that works for you, but I have several suggestions for natural ways of improving your sleep.
Something simple like a sleep meditation can work wonders. It can guide you into a delta state and help you switch off a busy mind. You can download this guided sleep meditation for free.
I also heartily recommend a relaxing gong bath, weekly if possible. My gong bath clients often report improved sleep after a gong bath, and usually for two or three nights afterwards; some report that it lasts all week for them. Do be sure to get a relaxing gong bath though – an energising one will have the opposite effect! If you can’t get to my studio in Nottingham, do feel free to get in touch and I may be able to recommend a gong practitioner in your area.
What have you found to be most helpful in combating sleep issues?