Medical Breakthroughs: Behind the Pain

BACKGROUND: According to the Mayo Clinic, six to eight million Americans have fibromyalgia. For years, patients with fibromyalgia were told the condition was "all in their heads."

No tests are available to diagnose the condition. Instead, the characteristic "tender points" are pushed on, and if the patient is sensitive at 11 of the 18 tender points, they are considered to have fibromyalgia.

Patients with the condition describe it as constant pain and fatigue that often leaves them unable to get out of bed. It is sometimes a burning pain, and sometimes a throbbing pain. It can come on suddenly without warning or unusual activities can set it off.

New research suggests the condition may be hereditary. Other symptoms often associated with fibromyalgia include allergies, bowel and bladder problems, sleep problems, restless leg syndrome and migraine headaches.

FIBROMYALGIA RESEARCH: New research is offering encouraging news for patients with fibromyalgia. If nothing else, it is at least showing that there are biological and physiological causes for the pain these individuals feel. One area of research being headed up by Daniel Clauw, M.D., currently at the University of Michigan.

Dr. Clauw used a functional MRI to look at the brain activity of individuals both with and without fibromyalgia when they were given a stimulus. He found, when patients with fibromyalgia were given a low-pressure stimulus, their brains showed the same activity as in people without fibromyalgia who were given a high-pressure stimulus.

Additionally, Dr. Clauw says the area of the brain that was activated by the low stimulus in the fibromyalgia patients was the area of the brain involved in feeling pain. What this means, said Dr. Clauw, is that "when patients with fibromyalgia say they are feeling pain, they are in fact feeling pain." He says fibromyalgia patients essentially have the volume on the pain processing area of the brain turned up too high.

Other research underway by Joan Shaver, R.N., Ph.D., and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is looking at the connection between sleep, hormones, and fibromyalgia. Shaver says certain hormones, including growth hormone, tends to peak in otherwise healthy individuals as they first fall asleep. In fibromyalgia patients, the levels remain low. Shaver says this connection may explain why people with fibromyalgia have difficulty sleeping. Another connection between this and fibromyalgia is that poor sleep is often connected to increased feelings of pain and growth hormone plays a role in muscle health.

Shaver says this information shows researchers that the next phase of research is to figure out how to increase levels of growth hormone in patients with fibromyalgia (supplements are generally much higher than what the body produces naturally) and how to help them achieve better sleep.

For More Information, Contact:

Joan Shaver, Ph.D., R.N.
University of Illinois at Chicago
(312) 996-0778

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