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Cause of fibromyalgia still baffles doctors

Cause of fibromyalgia still baffles doctors

Estimated read time: 2-3 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Imagine someone lightly touching your arm. To most people, that would feel fine. But to people with fibromyalgia, it could be quite painful.

What is ... fibromyalgia?
  • Makes you feel tired and causes muscle pain and "tender points"
  • Other symptoms may include trouble sleeping, morning stiffness, headaches, and problems with thinking and memory
  • Most common in middle-aged women
  • Cause unknown
(Source: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases)

Dr. Lucinda Bateman with the non-profit group Organization for Fatigue and Fibromyalgia Education and Research (OFFER), says, "You can measure eight to 12 different substances in the blood after people exercise that show they have an escalation of pain and fatigue."

There is some debate on whether fibromyalgia should be classified as a disease or whether it should be called a syndrome. With a disease, doctors can follow a chain of events that caused the illness. With a syndrome, they can better follow the illness' symptoms to determine how it should be treated.

Whether it's one thing or the other, the illness is very real and the symptoms can be measured.

"You can demonstrate the presence of this pain by taking out the spinal fluid and measuring the neurotransmitter ‘substance P,' that is a pain neurotransmitter," Bateman says. "People with fibromyalgia have three times more ‘substance P' in their spinal fluid."

Bateman says doctors use two main terms to describe what happens with fibromyalgia.

"One is called hyperalgesia and that means pain is more painful, and a term called allodynia, which means a signal that wouldn't normally be a pain signal can be interpreted as pain," she explains.

While Bateman says doctors don't know what causes fibromyalgia yet, they do know many people with the illness have some things in common.

"We know that people who develop fibromyalgia are often sleep deprived, have had a mechanical injury or viral infections and they've often been overextended and under a lot of stress in the time before they develop pain," she says.

Once someone is diagnosed with fibromyalgia, the symptoms of the illness stay with the person even if they reduce their stress and get more sleep.

Anti-inflammatory medications, like Ibuprofen, don't work at all for fibromyalgia patients, but other medications like Cymbalta and Lyrica seem promising. Some anti-depressants that raise serotonin and norepinephrine levels in the brain appear to work well.


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Paul Nelson


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