Half of Fibromyalgia Patients Suffer from Nerve Damage

First Posted: Jul 30, 2013 10:34 PM EDT

Fibromyalgia, a disorder that's characterized by a widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues, damages the nerve fibers in the skin of many patients, and for some, shows evidence of a disease called small-fiber polyneuropathy (SFPN). Unlike fibromyalgia, which has few treatments and a relatively unknown cause, SFPN has a clear pathology and is known to be caused by certain medical symptoms which do respond to treatment in some instances. And fortunately, in some instances, some can even be cured.

"This provides some of the first objective evidence of a mechanism behind some cases of fibromyalgia, and identifying an underlying cause is the first step towards finding better treatments," said Anne Louise Oaklander, MD, PhD, director of the Nerve Injury Unit in the MGH Department of Neurology and corresponding author of the Pain paper, via a press release.

Health experts believe that fibromyalgia amplifies painful sensations by affecting the way the brain processes pain signals. Fibromyalgia affects 1 to 5 percent of individuals in Western countries and is more commonly seen in women. To this day, the biological basis of the health issue remains unknown according to the American College of Rheumatology.

According to the study, researchers looked at 27 adult patients with fibromyalgia diagnoses and 30 healthy volunteers. Participants went through various tests to determine the diagnose SFPN, including assessments of neuropathy based on a physical examination and responses to a questionnaire with skin biopsies in order to evaluate the number of nerve fibers in their lower legs, and tests of autonomic functions that included heart rate, blood pressure and sweating.

All assessments found significant levels of neuropathy in the fibromyalgia patients but not in the control group, according to the study.

"Until now, there has been no good idea about what causes fibromyalgia, but now we have evidence for some but not all patients. Fibromyalgia is too complex for a 'one size fits all' explanation," said Oaklander, an associate professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, via the release. "The next step of independent confirmation of our findings from other laboratories is already happening, and we also need to follow those patients who didn't meet SFPN criteria to see if we can find other causes. Helping any of these people receive definitive diagnoses and better treatment would be a great accomplishment."

More information regarding the findings can be found in the journal Pain

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