Stress and Anxiety May Not Contribute to Fibromyalgia | Brain Health Blog

Date: 11/19/2013    Written by: Beth Levine

Fibromyalgia Brain Differences

Fibromyalgia is a condition that produces chronic bouts of pain and fatigue in those who suffer from it.  Even getting to a diagnosis of fibromyalgia can take a long time, as doctors often misdiagnose the problem with one of several other ailments that can cause similar symptoms.  It is a difficult road for most fibromyalgia patients, since the pain can be debilitating, treatment measures are helpful only in reducing the discomfort, and no cure currently exists.  As we discover more about fibromyalgia, though, there may eventually be a successful way to stop it entirely--or at least do a better job at reducing the pain.  To that end, new research has made a breakthrough by discovering abnormalities in the brains of those with fibromyalgia that may begin to explain how they process pain differently from others without the disease.

The study, which was conducted at the Centre Hospitalier-Universitaire de la Timone in Marseille, France, found that there are functional variations in the brains of fibromyalgia patients that influence the physical manifestations of the condition.1  This study, which was focused on women's health issues, included 20 adult women with a fibromyalgia diagnosis, as well as 10 adult women with no signs of fibromyalgia who acted as a control population.  Each participant filled out a survey that focused on questions about the severity of the pain they experienced, their level of disability, and to what extent they dealt with depression, stress and anxiety.

The volunteers all underwent a type of brain imaging known as single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), which shows not only the structure of an organ, but also blood flow and activity taking place in that organ.  The resultant scans revealed that those subjects with fibromyalgia all had blood flow abnormalities within the vascular networks of their brains--collectively called brain perfusion--that were not present in the control subjects in the experiment.  What's more, these differences to the brain were more substantial in those patients who exhibited the most pronounced symptoms.  The scans also showed that the affected region of the brain was the area that is responsible for our ability to classify the intensity of any pain we are feeling.

There have been theories in the medical community that fibromyalgia may be rooted in depression or anxiety, especially since up to one-third of fibromyalgia patients also have a mood disorder.  However, the findings of the current study add to the evidence refuting that theory.  Not only were differences found in the vascular system of parts of the brain that control our pain perception, but the abnormalities the researchers discovered in the imaging testing did not correlate to the levels of depression, stress and anxiety reported by the participants.

While this study was very small, it may hold promise for eventually leading to a much more significant comprehension of the disease and how to fight it, or again, to at least reduce the pain experienced.  Fibromyalgia is not a well-understood condition, and its cause is unknown.  Approximately five million people in the United States have fibromyalgia, and an overwhelming 80 to 90 percent of them are women, making it a focus in research on women's health issues.2  A diagnosis may be given when a patient has prolonged pain throughout all four quadrants of their body for a minimum of three months as well as the presence of 11 or more tender points, which are specific areas of the neck, shoulders, arms, back, hips, and legs that are painful when any pressure is applied.  They also frequently experience a lack of concentration, memory issues, fatigue, insomnia, and stiffness upon awakening.

Once a person is diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a typical course of treatment often includes a prescription for a pharmaceutical drug such as Lyrica or Cymbalta to achieve pain relief.3   Both of these medications can produce a range of side effects, including dizziness, dry mouth, fatigue, constipation, difficulty concentrating, and more. For those interested in taking a more natural approach to fibromyalgia treatment, there are a number of options.  In a 2011 study at the Universidade Federal de Sao Paulo in Brazil, researchers found that both strength training and cardiovascular activities can diminish pain in those with fibromyalgia.4  Avoiding caffeine later in the day and starting a soothing bedtime ritual can help improve sleep.  And the Baseline of Health approach to any systemic disorder can help rid the body of toxins and pathogens, which may play a causative role, while strengthening your system from the inside out.

  • 1. Doheny, Kathleen. "Scans Reveal Brain Abnormalities in Fibromyalgia Patients." ABC News. 4 November 2013. Accessed 10 November 2013.
  • 2. Clauw, Daniel. "Fibromyalgia Fact Sheet." Office on Women's Health. 29 June 2010. Accessed 11 November 2013.
  • 3. "Fibromyalgia Treatment." National Fibromyalgia Association. Accessed 11 November 2013.
  • 4. Kayo, Andrea Harumi; et al. "Effectiveness of physical activity in reducing pain in patients with fibromyalgia: a blinded randomized clinical trial." Rheumatology International. 19 May 2011. Accessed 11 November 2013.

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    Submitted by Michael on
    December 19, 2013 - 7:45am

    Dear Dr.,

    great article! Please take the time to explain how the research demonstrates that those who suffer with Fibromyalgia, et alia, are not wimps.

    For the last 25 years I have been having an incredible experience with Dercum's Disease under the diagnosis of Fibromyalgia, CFS, Post-viral fatigue... piggy backing on a 40 yr history of congenital lumbar stenosis. I am HLAB27 positive with rampant white blood cells... I am not that concerned to differentiate chronic disease, but to stand up for everyone with chronic disease who, everyday, overcomes pain, fatigue and exhaustion like a soldier switched off to non-fatal wounds and injuries, even told that 'they' do not have cracked ribs, or other medical issues, because medics cannot conceive how for not having listened - yet to be told that there are those select, usually in special armed services, who are able to tune out to pain and carry on... I beg your pardon? Thank you for your article.

    Submitted by BaselineFoundation on
    December 19, 2013 - 6:18pm

    The medical community often disparages symptoms they do not understand as psychosomatic. Eventually, though, as they learn more about the condition, they embrace it as one of their own—subject, of course, to treatment through medical procedures and pharmaceutical drugs. All we can do in the alternative health community is keep providing information until medicine comes round in its understanding – and suggest alternative therapies so that dangerous pharmaceutical drugs are not the only treatment option.

    Submitted by DM on
    December 19, 2013 - 12:20pm

    Actually I believe we do understand fibromyalgia more than is implied by this article. It is usually the buildup of substance P in the brain stem which over sensitizes the brain stem to feel pain when it shouldnt. To read more about this go to wellnessresources. Moreover, it is nearly 100% curable with diet, supplements, and lifestyle changes. I am not saying it is easy or takes a short time but optimizing diet, supplements, and lifestyle will eventually correct the problem most of the time.

    Some good supplements for clearing substance P are: magnesium, acetyl l-carnitine, carnosine, quercetin, and calcium AEP.

    Submitted by BaselineFoundation on
    December 19, 2013 - 6:20pm

    Certainly, the Baseline of Health Foundation would agree that an overall wellness program that includes cleansing and rebuilding with proper diet and supplements makes sense. If fact, it is the very premise on which Jon Barron’s Baseline of Health Program is founded.

    But as to fibromyalgia, the evidence would suggest that it’s a bit more complicated than you suggest. Possible risk factors that have been identified include:

    • gender (usually female)
    • genetic disposition (may be inherited)
    • menopause (loss of estrogen)
    • poor physical conditioning
    • surgery
    • trauma to the brain or spinal cord (after an injury, accident, illness, or emotional stress)
    • overgrowth of nerve fibers
    • overactive immune system
    • even food sensitivities

    PS: And when it comes to substance P, you might want to check out Jon Barron’s article on the nature of pain transmission and how to regulate it.


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