Until recently, fibromyalgia research had uncovered only limited information about this condition of widespread pain, fatigue, and sleep disruption despite the condition’s prevalence—five million U.S. adults have it.

Many fibromyalgia patients have suffered from those in the medical establishment not understanding their condition or thinking the symptoms were psychosomatic. Other patients have found themselves running to doctor after doctor trying to figure out what was wrong with them.

There is no definitive test for fibromyalgia. Instead, doctors diagnose patients based on how they feel, according to the American College of Rheumatology.

Now, heightened awareness and increased fibromyalgia research is beginning to shed light into this once mysterious disease, in its causes, physiology, and potential treatments.

Fibromyalgia research uncovers clues about cause

Researchers have uncovered abnormalities in both brain functioning and in the palms of patients’ hands that hold clues to the causes of fibromyalgia. Meanwhile, additional fibromyalgia research has linked childhood chronic pain with the disorder.

Scientists at New York’s Integrated Tissue Dynamics found something unique in the palms of patients with fibromyalgia’s hands. The blood vessels in their palms have an abnormally large number of sensory nerve fibers that lead to an increased sensitivity of pain.

Blood vessels help store blood, promote its flow, and regulate body temperature. When temperatures drop, blood vessels become more active in an attempt to warm the body, which researchers say may explain why fibromyalgia patients sometimes feel more pain during cold weather.

The next step for researchers is to learn why this happens. Answers could help scientists learn how to prevent the extra sensory nerve fibers from developing or prevent them from causing pain.

In other fibromyalgia research news, scientists have uncovered abnormalities in the brain common to patients with fibromyalgia. Researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder scanned the brains of people with the disorder and found highly sensitive reactions to stimuli that others wouldn’t consider painful.

People with fibromyalgia not only experience heightened processing of traditional pain signals, but also misprocess neutral signals as painful ones, researchers said. Spanish Dr. Pedro Montoya, who was not a part of the study, says:

“When you are in pain, it is probably that you are more concentrated on your own pain than on the tasks you have to pay attention to.”

This fibromyalgia research and others makes scientists believe that the disorder is not just a condition of pain, but one that involves a broader issue of processing stimuli throughout the body. Professor Michael E. Geisser at the University of Michigan says:

“It’s as if the volume control for sensation in persons with fibromyalgia is turned up, or louder, for many types of sensation compared to persons without the disorder.”

Future medications may attempt to quiet pain response in overactive areas to turn down the volume.

The biological underpinnings of fibromyalgia may help explain research from the American Pain Society that uncovers a link between childhood chronic pain and later development of fibromyalgia.

The study evaluated more than 1,000 patients and found that one in six adult patients had experienced chronic pain earlier in life. The patients reporting lifelong pain were mostly female, the gender most commonly affected by fibromyalgia, and they were more likely to report pain that was widespread and related to peripheral neuropathy, a form of nerve pain, which researchers said was likely fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia research identifies common, co-existing conditions

Many patients with fibromyalgia have other disorders occurring on top of the pain disorder. One of the more common ones is restless leg syndrome, according to research published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

Restless leg syndrome is a neurological condition that involves uncomfortable sensations such as throbbing or creeping in the legs that lead to a near unstoppable urge to move them. The symptoms commonly appear at night, making it difficult to get a good night’s rest.

Fibromyalgia and restless leg syndrome have some common aspects, namely they both involve abnormal sensory patterns. Researchers believe the part of the brain regulating dopamine, a neurotransmitter, may be implicated in both disorders, according to the study.

About 10% of the population has restless leg syndrome, and people with fibromyalgia are ten times more likely to experience it, according to the study. A symptom of fibromyalgia is disturbed sleep, and people with restless leg syndrome experience an even greater difficultly finding a sound night’s rest.

Treating restless leg syndrome may help patients achieve better sleep, scientists said. Existing treatments typically involve some sort of medication, but may also include lifestyle modifications such as reducing caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol intake, adopting regular sleep habits, increasing exercise, or using a combination of hot or cold therapy, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

New fibromyalgia research uncovers possible treatment

Fibromyalgia researchers are busily learning about the disorder’s underlying physical causes, but new treatments—some of them medicine-free—are on the horizon.

One of those is a whole-body vibration exercise discovered by scientists at Indiana University. Although the exercise doesn’t cure fibromyalgia, it did reduce pain and improve quality of life for participants in the study.

The technique is new, and researchers said they weren’t sure whether the benefits were related to this specific exercise or as a result of increased activity, which is a well-known way to help reduce pain.

Whole-body vibration is a technique that involves the use of a vibrating platform on which people stand, sit, or lay down. As the machine vibrates, muscles contract and then relax, helping to reduce pain.

Although vibration machines aren’t yet widely available—they’re still largely limited to the realm of research—some fitness centers have them. They’re also available for purchase.

For those without vibration machines, researchers say exercise is one of the best ways to manage fibromyalgia-related pain even though many patients avoid activity from fear of exacerbating symptoms. Leading a sedentary lifestyle not only tends to worsen fibromyalgia, but can lead to weight gain and other health issues, such as diabetes, scientists said.

What fibromyalgia research finding has your interest most piqued?

Image by Idaho National Laboratory via Flickr

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