In a paper published earlier this month in Arthritis & Rheumatology, Marina Lopez-Sola of the University of Colorado, Boulder, showed that people suffering from fibromyalgia are hypersensitive to everyday sensory stimulation. This includes sight and sound cues as well as touch. Fibromyalgia causes feelings of general malaise in addition to severe aches and pains.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers showed a decreased response in visual and auditory regions of the brain in fibromyalgia patients, where one would expect to see an increase. Instead, their sensory integration regions showed increased activity.
“Our study provides new evidence that fibromyalgia patients display altered central processing in response to multisensory stimulation, which are linked to core fibromyalgia symptoms and may be part of the disease pathology,” Lopez-Sola said in a news release. “The finding of reduced cortical activation in the visual and auditory brain areas that were associated with patient pain complaints may offer novel targets for neurostimulation treatments in fibromyalgia patients.”
The study included 35 women with fibromyalgia and 25 healthy, age-matched controls. Patients had an average age of 47 and a disease duration of seven years. Fibromyalgia affects about 5 million Americans, most of whom are middle-aged women, according to the CDC.
Frank Rice, a scientist who published a study last year about the potential causes of fibromyalgia pain, said that Lopez-Sola’s research is solid and sensible.
He told Healthline he would not have imagined three years ago that so much physical evidence would emerge about this mysterious disease, which has largely been dismissed as psychological.
“Now we have better information about what’s going on. The problem is that the general medical community and general public haven’t come up to speed knowing this is the case,” he said. “Let’s get rid of the stigma.”
Science Points to Possible Causes of Fibro Pain
Rice’s research showed that people with fibromyalgia have an enormous number of sensory nerve fibers in the blood vessels of the palms of their hands. Shunts in the blood vessels, which operate like a radiator to open up in cold weather, may explain patients’ increased pain during cold winter months.
Now Lopez-Sola's research shows that sensory signals are not being processed in the appropriate areas of the brain for people with fibromyalgia. The theory is that the central nervous system, when healthy, learns how to respond to routine stimulation and eventually processes it in the background.
Lopez-Sola's research indicates that the brains of fibromyalgia sufferers are not recognizing the signals initially, but are later amplifying them when they should just be running in the background.
For example, when you walk into a house for the first time you will recognized a certain scent, Rice said. Maybe the second time you enter the house you’ll recognize it, too. But by the third time you shouldn’t notice it at all, allowing you to concentrate on things like holding a conversation with the people you’re visiting.
Incorrect sensory processing in the brain and an overgrowth of nerve endings in the palms may just be two pieces of the larger fibromyalgia puzzle. Why these things occur remains a mystery.
Rice said that fibromyalgia, like other unexplained illnesses, is a multimodal disease. Symptoms may be caused by a combination of factors. The result is that different specialists often hone in on only one symptom and try unsuccessfully to treat it. When that doesn’t work, they may throw their hands up.
It leads to frustrated doctors and more frustrated patients.
Fibromyalgia Is like a Bad Theme Park Ride
Rice described the dysfunction going on in the nervous systems of people with fibromyalgia as a trip to an Imax movie theater gone wrong. Imax films are shot with several cameras mounted on trucks or airplanes, all pointed in different directions. Think of them as pieces of the central nervous system.
“If you go to the Imax they tell you not to look to the side. If you do look to the side, now the center of your retina which should be [focused] on the central camera and should be static is getting motion,” he explained. “The brain says, ‘Wait a minute, there’s motion but you’re not moving. Something doesn’t add up here.’ The next thing you know you’re tossing your cookies.”
Similarly, the brain can be tricked by sensory effects used on rides at amusement parks. Many people have gone on a theme park ride, or so they thought, while watching a movie at the same time that gives the impression of movement.
The visual and auditory cues, combined with effects such as fans to create the feeling of wind on your face, make you think you've gone on quite a physical trip when in fact it all went on inside a tiny room.
The human brain is a powerful tool, but when its signals go awry, it can create a whole world of pain and confusion.