Every wonder what those people are doing in the park on Saturday mornings? Or on the beach early in the morning? They are all standing in lines and seem to be moving very slowly, with purpose, with their arms or legs in very specific positions, in what looks like a beautifully orchestrated dance. They are actually setting themselves up for a good night sleep! In an article in the New York Times, a research group out of Tufts University has published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, showing the effectiveness of Tai Chi on Fibromyalgia (and sleep).
A clinical trial at Tufts Medical Center discovered that after 12 weeks of Tai Chi (60 minute sessions, twice per week), patients (66 subjects) with the chronic pain syndrome known as Fibromyalgia performed significantly better on measurements of pain, fatigue, depression and sleep. Subjects were then tested again at 24 weeks to see if the findings persisted, which they did. The study design was excellent, and the journal that published the study is of particular significance. Historically it has been very difficult to define Fibromyalgia, since there are no blood tests or biopsies that can be done for diagnosis. To have one of the most respected medical journals accept an article about this topic helps validate its existence. In the sleep research world we have seen some possible markers of Fibromyalgia.
When looking at sleep studies of those suffering from Fibromylagia, 40% show a very unique brainwave called alpha-delta sleep. While this brainwave can be seen in other populations, it is interesting because it often reflects how the Fibromyalgia person reports their sleep, which is typically un-refreshing. Delta or deep sleep, includes stages 3 and 4 sleep where we see a large number of delta brain waves. This is the most physically restorative sleep, where the body re-energizes. Alpha waves are the brainwaves produced when someone is awake lying with their eyes closed. So alpha-delta sleep is your deepest sleep, but with an awake pattern thrown in, so your deep sleep does not feel so deep anymore. And maybe your physical restoration does not occur as well, causing the fatigue and pain feels often seen in Fibromyalgia patients.
Currently there are no medications to help us address alpha-delta sleep in Fibromyalgia patients, but there are some encouraging studies with the Narcolepsy medicine Xyrem. Currently the FDA does not approve the use of Xyrem for use outside of the treatment of Narcolepsy.
In my clinical experience, many patients with Fibromyalgia have an underlying sleep disorder, and if we treat that disorder (apnea, narcolepsy, etc.), often the Fibromyalgia gets better.
With this new research in mind, there may now be more evidence of this amazing alternative therapy with the beautiful rhythm of Tai Chi to help those in need.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™