By Julie Hambleton
Fibromyalgia is one of the most prevalent pain-related conditions in North America and throughout the world. It affects approximately 10 million Americans and about three to six percent of the world’s population. 75 to 90 percent of the people affected are women; the disease is often passed on to their children, and the prevalence and development of the condition increases with age. In short, fibromyalgia is a real problem. (3)
To date, there is no cure for fibromyalgia, only treatments to help lesson and deal with the pain. Up until now the disease was thought to be a psychological condition, not a physical one, because scientists and researchers could not figure out the root cause. (2, 3) With a study circulating claiming to have “solved the mystery of fibromyalgia”, we decided to look into what exactly these doctors found and what it means for people suffering from fibromyalgia.
In the January 2017 edition of PAIN: The Journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain, neuroscientists and researchers published a study in which they discovered a brain mark that explains the pathophysiology of fibromyalgia at a neural level, as well as the areas most affected by pain (the legs, hands, and feet) have an excess of blood vessels that play a major role in the feeling and intensity of pain. (1, 2)
The scientists compared 37 fibromyalgia patients with a 35-person healthy control group and analyzed their functional MRIs to painful pressure and non-painful multisensory (sight, sound, and touch) stimulation. From this, they were able to identify a brain-based fibromyalgia “signature”, meaning the way certain regions of the brain responded to both the painful and non-painful stimulation were different between the fibromyalgia patients and the healthy individuals. (1, 2)
In terms of blood vessels, the scientists also found that those who suffer from fibromyalgia have an excess of blood vessels in the areas of the body that they feel pain, specifically an excess of “arteriole-venule shunts”, which play a role in conscious sensation of touch and pain. This mismanaged blood flow can then lead to extreme muscle cramps in those areas, achiness, and consequent feelings of fatigue. (1, 2)
Why the claim “Fibromyalgia Mystery Solved” is still untrue
While this study is very promising for those living with fibromyalgia, to claim that “the mystery is solved” is a gross oversimplification of the disease and its cause. This discovery has not solved fibromyalgia, but instead:
- Found markers to help better identify and diagnose the disease, (1)
- May provide actual neural targets for therapeutic interventions, and (1)
- Help to establish a framework for assessing therapeutic methods and predict treatment response on an individual basis. (1)
All in all, this discovery is a big step in the right direction. It proves that people with fibromyalgia are not crazy and do feel pain in multiple places throughout their bodies despite non-obvious damage to those areas. The study also provides a spring board for more research to be done on the development of treatments to heal and end fibromyalgia pain. (1, 2)
What happens next?
The next step is to now move forward with more research into treatment methods and options based on these new findings, as well as to continue to study and learn more about the pathophysiology of fibromyalgia and its effects on the brain and body. The goal is to find a treatment method that is highly adaptable to each individual, as the disease manifests itself differently from person to person. Perhaps one day, scientists will discover a way to not only cure an fibromyalgia patient permanently, but also prevent the condition from being passed on to future generations and finally putting an end to this confusing, mysterious illness. (1, 2)
Current treatment options for fibromyalgia
There are a number of methods that those who suffer from fibromyalgia have at their disposal to treat and manage their pain and symptoms, many of which can be combined for an all-encompassing effect. Most of the treatment options are focused on reducing the inflammation that is often a major contributing factor to the pain. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet with foods such as turmeric, leafy green vegetables, and low-glycemic carbohydrates such as squash and beets .
Current treatment options include:
- Physical therapy to learn exercises that will increase strength, stamina, and flexibility, including water-based exercises for minimal joint impact and pounding.
- Occupational therapy to help you set up your home, work, and living spaces optimally to decrease stress on your body, as well as show you different ways to perform certain tasks to reduce the associated pain.
- Counseling to help you deal with the mental and emotional ramifications of chronic pain and teach you how to believe in yourself and trust that you can complete tasks and persevere in stressful situations.
Alternative Treatment Options
- Acupuncture : This is an ancient Chinese healing technique that involves inserting very fine needles in various places on the body to restore balance to that area. The act of inserting these needles causes changes in blood flow to the area and levels of neurotransmitters in the brain and spinal column, which may help to reduce symptoms of fibromyalgia.
- Massage therapy: Using different techniques to move and manipulate your body’s muscles and soft tissues, massage can effectively lower your heart rate, improve range of motion through your joints, relax your muscles, and cause your body to increase production of its natural pain killers.
- Yoga and tai chi: Another ancient practice, these are slow, meditative movements that involve deep breathing and relaxation. They have found to be helpful at reducing fibromyalgia symptoms and their associated anxiety and stress.
While there are many nutrients and herbs that can support healing and pain reduction, below are some of the top remedies that have been known to help with fibromyalgia:
- Magnesium + Malic Acid: A study published in the Journal of Korean Medical Science in October 2011 found that women who suffered from fibromyalgia also had lower magnesium levels. Other studies have suggested that people with fibromyalgia might have difficulty producing malic acid, which is important for muscle function and therefore may cause problems. (4)
- Natural anti-inflammatory foods and supplements such as omega-3 fish oil and curcumin have shown to help reduce the inflammation in the joints of those with fibromyalgia and therefore decrease their pain. (5)
- Adaptogens: These are herbs that help your body cope with stress, exhaustion and increase your mitochondria’s ability to produce high-energy molecules and restore function to areas damaged by fibromyalgia. (8)
- 5-HTP: This helps your body produce serotonin, which lifts your mood. Some studies suggest that it may help with fibromyalgia symptoms such as pain, fatigue, stiffness, and anxiety. (7)
Lastly, always approach these with caution due to the unwanted side-effects and aim to improve overall health at a cellular level first with diet and lifestyle.
- Pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), and naproxen sodium (Aleve), as well as prescription pain medications to help reduce pain and improve sleep.
- Antidepressants such as Cymbalta and Savella to help ease pain and fight its associated fatigue.
- Anti-seizure drugs such as Neurontin and Lyrica used typically to treat epilepsy can also be effective against certain types of pain associated with fibromyalgia.
It is important to talk to your doctor first before adding or making changes to your current treatment plan.
Where to go for more information
Studies are being done all the time in an attempt to better understand fibromyalgia and come up with new, more effective treatment options with fewer side effects. You can follow along with studies that will continue to be published in the journal PAIN as well as visit the National Fibromyalgia Association‘s website for recent news regarding the disease and to connect with others in the fibromyalgia community.