What causes fibromyalgia?
We don’t yet know exactly what causes fibromyalgia, but research suggests that there’s an interaction between physical, neurological and psychological factors. The pain we feel is often affected by our emotions and moods – depression or anxiety can make the pain seem worse. At the same time, being in pain can lead to stress, worry or low mood.
Usually, people feel pain when part of the body is damaged (as in arthritis) or suffers a physical injury. The pain people with fibromyalgia feel is different because it's not directly caused by damage or injury to the area that's hurting. Instead there's a problem with the way the brain and nervous system process pain from that area. This doesn’t mean the pain is any less real, but because there’s no physical damage that can be healed there's no easy way to stop the pain. This is why fibromyalgia pain can be long-lasting (chronic).
Research has shown that people with fibromyalgia are more sensitive to physical pressure. This means that what would be a relatively minor knock for most people could be extremely painful for someone with fibromyalgia. This increased sensitivity isn't fully understood but it’s thought that it could be related to changes in the way the nervous system processes pain. Some researchers have shown using special brain scans that these processes are altered in people with fibromyalgia.
Sleep disturbance may also contribute to this increased sensitivity. Brainwave studies show that people with fibromyalgia often lose deep sleep. A number of things may lead to sleep disturbance, such as:
- pain from an injury or another condition such as arthritis
- stress at work or strain in personal relationships
- depression brought on by illness or unhappy events.
People with fibromyalgia quite often report that their symptoms started after an illness or accident, or following a period of emotional stress and anxiety. However, others can't recall any particular event leading up to the onset of symptoms.
In an experiment where healthy volunteers were woken during each period of deep sleep, a number of them developed the typical signs and symptoms of fibromyalgia.
Not surprisingly, a combination of pain, sleep disturbance and anxiety or depression can turn into a vicious cycle. Poor sleep will contribute to the severe tiredness that often goes with fibromyalgia.
Read more about pain and arthritis and sleep and arthritis.