The link between fibromyalgia and nerve damage

iStock_000003476546MediumFibromyalgia causes chronic pain in muscles, joints, tendons and tissue for an estimated 12 million Americans. Doctors are still working to understand the causes for the condition causing widespread pain for so many people, and the lack of understanding has made pain management a difficult and frustrating process.

New research suggests that many people with fibromyalgia aren’t just dealing with chronic pain, but also with nerve damage. The damage to nerve fibers found in about half of a small group of fibromyalgia patients studied, was evidence of a disease called small-fiber polyneuropathy (SFPN). Fibromyalgia causes chronic pain, deep tissue pain, fatigue, headaches, depression and lack of sleep (among other symptoms). Many of the symptoms of fibromyalgia are the same symptoms associated with SFPN.

The study by Massachusetts General Hospital points to SFPN as the cause of some cases of fibromyalgia—a first in medical research. “This provides some of the first objective evidence of a mechanism behind some cases of fibromyalgia, and identifying and underlying cause is the first step towards finding better treatments,” said Anne Louise Oaklander, MD, PhD, director of the Nerve Injury Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital and an author of the study.

This may be good news for some fibromyalgia patients, as SFPN has known causes, some of which can be treated or even cured. Fibromyalgia has been somewhat of a medical mystery, making treatment difficult, but if symptoms of fibromyalgia can be tied back to SFPT in some patients, those patients may have a better chance at treatment for their chronic pain.

“Until now, there has been no good idea about what causes fibromyalgia, but now we have evidence for some but not all patients,” said Oaklander. “Helping any of these people receive definitive diagnosis and better treatment would be a great accomplishment.”

While more research is needed, pain experts are hopeful that the connection between fibromyalgia and SFPN may lead to a more clear understanding of what is otherwise a poorly understood disease. A greater understanding of fibromyalgia will allow doctors to prescribe more effective pain management treatments for their patients.