Researchers say it’s unclear exactly why there’s a link between poor sleep and fibromyalgia. “Previous experimental studies have shown that sleep deprivation is associated with lowered pain-pressure threshold at multiple body sites –symptoms similar to fibromyalgia,” says Mork. Sleep deprivation has also been associated with elevated blood levels of inflammatory markers and a diminished ability for the body to reduce pain, he adds. “It is therefore plausible that long-lasting sleep problems increase the risk of developing widespread chronic pain. It is also possible that sleep problems and pain occur together, inducing a vicious circle where poor sleep causes pain, and pain causes a worsening of sleep quality.”

It remains to be seen if fixing sleep problems will improve fibromyalgia symptoms. “I am not aware of any study that has investigated whether successful treatment of sleep problems in patients with fibromyalgia is associated with improvement of other symptoms such as pain,” Mork says. “I think the key message is that sleep problems should be taken seriously at an early stage to reduce the risk of future development of fibromyalgia.”

Other experts also hope the findings can be used to help patients. “We have known for years that many people with fibromyalgia report sleep problems, but we’ve not had much information with regard to the relationship between the two,” says James K. Walsh, PhD, executive director and senior scientist at the Sleep Medicine and Research Center at St. Luke's Hospital in Chesterfield, Mo. “I think it’s a very solid, well conducted study. It’s interesting. It’s in an area that most of us have been at a loss to figure out why people with fibromyalgia have sleep problems. What is that link? This gives us some insight into possible future research that might ultimately have a clinical benefit.”

However, Walsh adds, “It would be incorrect to conclude from this paper that sleep problems cause fibromyalgia. Sleep problems precede fibromyalgia, but the two things may possibly both be connected to a third thing, another behavioral or environmental problem.”

Walsh says this new data offers a reason to pursue further studies in this area to see whether or not treatment of sleep problems can reduce the risk of developing fibromyalgia. “I think it gives us a pathway to some more precise research that may ultimately [reduce] the risk of fibromyalgia,” Walsh says.