What A Sleep Study Can Reveal About Fibromyalgia

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

Research engineers and sleep medicine specialists from two Michigan universities have joined technical and clinical hands to put innovative quantitative analysis, signal-processing technology and computer algorithms to work in the sleep lab. One of their recent findings is that a new approach to analyzing sleep fragmentation appears to distinguish fibromyalgia patients from healthy controls.

Joseph W. Burns, a research scientist and engineer at the Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI); Ronald D. Chervin, director of the University of Michigan’s Michael S. Aldrich Sleep Disorders Laboratory; and Leslie Crofford, director of the Center for the Advancement of Women’s Health at the University of Kentucky, report the results of their study in the current issue of the journal Sleep Medicine

MTRI, a freestanding research institute acquired by Michigan Tech in 2006 and based in Ann Arbor, specializes in remote sensors that collect data, and in signal processing, using algorithms or computer programs to analyze and correlate the information the sensors gather. MTRI has developed an ongoing collaboration with the University of Michigan’s sleep laboratory, one of the nation’s leading clinical and research centers specializing in sleep medicine.

This several-year collaboration provided MTRI’s first opportunities to apply quantitative analysis, remote sensing technology and computer algorithms to clinical challenges, said Burns. “In this case, our analyses of sleep stage dynamics suggest potential clinical relevance,” he noted. Newly explored measures of sleep fragmentation seem to correlate—at least in this study—with levels of pain reported by fibromyalgia patients.

Burns, who has a PhD in electrical engineering, finds that more and more of his research is taking a biomedical turn. He and his team are working with Chervin to use signal-processing technology to record and analyze the brain waves and biophysical responses of children and adults with a variety of sleep disorders. They hope it will help them better understand conventional sleep patterns, as well as diagnose and treat sleep disorders.


They presented the results of research related to assessment of sleep-disordered breathing and sleep fragmentation at Sleep 2008, an international sleep research conference, in Baltimore in June.

Patients who may have sleep disorders often undergo complicated and expensive tests in sleep laboratories, Chervin explained. These studies collect an assortment of biophysical data that reflect brain, cardiovascular and muscle activity throughout the night. Up to now, these data had to be analyzed manually by highly trained technicians.

“We are collaborating to find new ways to analyze routinely collected data in a way that will be meaningful to the patient’s health and will help us understand how sleep disorders affect brain functions,” he said.

Automated analysis of data potentially can provide improved assessments and reduce the cost of sleep studies, Burns noted. For example, MTRI and UM have developed an automated technique for assessing the severity of sleep-disordered breathing, using just two signals—brain waves and respiration—instead of the dozen or more signals typically needed for standard visual scoring of a sleep study.

“It may even become possible for people to take sleep tests—simpler and more effective than some of those currently available—at home where they can sleep in their own familiar bedrooms,” he suggested.

Both partners are reaping the benefits of the collaboration, Burns said. Not only can automated technology improve clinical research; what the MTRI scientists have learned about biomedical techniques such as brain mapping is informing their more traditional work on radar and optical sensing technology.



The Unique Pain Of Fibromyalgia Syndrome The experience of pain appears to be a complex phenomenon with humans. The reason for the occurrence of pain can be physical, psychological, or a combination of both of these causes. And how one defines or describes the intensity of the pain they experience varies as much as the types of pain that exist. Although the origin may be the same from one person to another, the experience of pain is, in fact, a subjective emotional response to the sensation and perception of the pain itself. This is why the syndrome of Fibromyalgia is so difficult to define objectively and treat for health care providers, who are usually primary care physicians. Rheumatologists have said that Fibromyalgia Syndrome is the second most common musculoskeletal diagnosis after osteoporosis. Fibromyalgia is a very controversial syndrome. Some doubt it is as prevalent as others believe (3 to 6 percent of the population, some have determined). About 80 percent of the sufferers that are diagnosed with fibromyalgia are women. Furthermore, fibromyalgia is not a disease- it is a syndrome. A syndrome is what you call something that has multiple symptoms that occur together. A disease, however, is an actual dysfunction of one’s physiology in some manner. Fibromyalgia syndrome is considered a muscle condition that involves varying intensities of chronic pain for a prolonged period of time. As a result of this pain which is rather brutal with many sufferers, their physical function becomes limited. In addition, the location of the pain associated with fibromyalgia is determined by the health care provider according to at least 11 of 18 defined tender points at various locations on the human body. Regardless, fibromyalgia is misunderstood by the medical community overall. To further complicate the subject of fibromyalgia syndrome, some have suggested that the pharmaceutical companies that make the only two medications actually approved for the treatment of fibromyalgia, which are the drug giants Pfizer with their drug Lyrica, and Eli Lilly, the maker of Cymbalta, have conducted what is known as disease mongering. Disease mongering is when others expand the diagnostic criteria for a particular medical issue though various ways of informing the public of the potential undetected cases of such an issue through advertising, primarily. Also, another method of disease mongering is though the funding of various related associations and societies through educational grants to be the voice for those who conduct disease mongering with deliberate intent to increase the profit of their medications. There is evidence to support this claim- with more funds from these companies dedicated to advertising much more than grants. Yet it is clear that fibromyalgia syndrome exists, as there are so many diagnosed with this medical issue that share the same symptoms, which include other symptoms besides pain alone. And it often takes a great deal of time for a patient that has fibromyalgia to receive the correct diagnosis due to the absence of any objective diagnostic testing to assess this syndrome. The fibromyalgia patient often goes through numerous other diagnostic testing, such as blood work and X-Rays, as their doctor orders such tests to rule out other diseases and disorders that may be present with the symptoms expressed with fibromyalgia syndrome. Variables associated with those diagnosed with fibromyalgia syndrome include those patients with a history mental illness. They also tend to be overweight and live an inactive lifestyle, overall. Also, there seems to be an association with those diagnosed with fibromyalgia and these patients being in a state of low socioeconomic status. Also in over 50 percent of those diagnosed with fibromyalgia, the patients are experiencing mental stress, emotional distress, as well as some sort of family conflicts as well. In fact, this stress amplifies the symptoms of fibromyalgia if these emotions are expressing themselves in the fibromyalgia patient. Insomnia is associated with fibromyalgia as well. It appears that mean age of onset of Fibromyalgia is around 40 years old, yet fibromyalgia syndrome can occur at any age. Aside from systemic pain of varying degrees with the fibromyalgia patient, the patient experiences affective disorders typically. Since the symptoms of fibromyalgia also could indicate other disease states in 25 percent of the patients, usually X-Rays and blood work are examined to rule out other possible causes for the symptoms. The Journal of the American Medical Association gave these symptoms the name of Fibromyalgia in the mid 1980s, as well as this association publically acknowledging that it is a disabling illness There is evidence the cause is neurological. Upon examining the spinal fluid of a fibromyalgia patient, their serotonin levels are low, which is a neurotransmitter that has multiple emotional functions, as well as elevations of the neuro-chemical protein called substance P, which is the catalyst for pain. The patients also have elevated levels of what is called nerve growth factor (NGF). NGF is a protein molecule that, when elevated, is also associated with Alzeimer’s disease, and, believe it or not, one falling in love. Furthermore, some fibromyalgia patents have had their brains scanned for abnormalities that may be present, and their brains in fact have shown varying degrees of structural dysfunction with their brains due to fibromyalgia. So some suspect not only the cause may be some sort of central nervous system injury, but also there is evidence the syndrome is from some sort of viral infection, it has been reported. Treatment of the fibromyalgia patient includes not only the drugs mentioned earlier, but also other medications for pain, anxiety, and insomnia in particular. Lifestyle changes are recommended for the fibromyalgia patient, as well as many other treatment methods in order to relieve their discomfort. Physical exercise is appropriately recommended for the fibromyalgia patient as well. What is perhaps not recommended enough is cognitive or behavioral therapy for the fibromyalgia patient. There seems to be a strong association between fibromyalgia syndrome and psychogenic or psychophysiological causes for their symptoms. Or, perhaps the fibromyalgia patient is suffering from some sort of guilt for some reason that is amplifies the unfortunate syndrome they are forced to tolerate. Mea Culpa is Latin, meaning, ‘my fault’. Pain is a Latin word as well. Its meaning: a fine or penalty. Further research, however, is needed regarding this unfortunate syndrome experienced by so many others for no solid reason defined yet. Dan Abshear