Fibromyalgia is the second most common rheumatic disorder behind osteoarthritis and, though still widely misunderstood, is now considered to be a lifelong central nervous system disorder, which is responsible for amplified pain that shoots through the body in those who suffer from it. Daniel Clauw, M.D., professor of anesthesiology, University of Michigan, analyzed the neurological basis for fibromyalgia in a plenary session address today at the American Pain Society Annual Scientific Meeting.
“Fibromyalgia can be thought of both as a discreet disease and also as a final common pathway of pain centralization and chronification. Most people with this condition have lifelong histories of chronic pain throughout their bodies,” said Clauw. “The condition can be hard to diagnose if one isn’t familiar with classic symptoms because there isn’t a single cause and no outward signs.”
Clauw explained that fibromyalgia pain comes more from the brain and spinal cord than from areas of the body in which someone may experience peripheral pain. The condition is believed to be associated with disturbances in how the brain processes pain and other sensory information. He said physicians should suspect fibromyalgia in patients with multifocal (mostly musculoskeletal) pain that is not fully explained by injury or inflammation.
“Because pain pathways throughout the body are amplified in fibromyalgia patients, pain can occur anywhere, so chronic headaches, visceral pain and sensory hyper-responsiveness are common in people with this painful condition,” said Clauw.
“This does not imply that peripheral nociceptive input does not contribute to pain experienced by fibromyalgia patients, but they do feel more pain than normally would be expected from the degree of peripheral input. Persons with fibromyalgia and other pain states characterized by sensitization will experience pain from what those without the condition would describe as touch,” Clauw added.
Due to the central nervous system origins of fibromyalgia pain, Clauw said treatments with opioids or other narcotic analgesics usually are not effective because they do not reduce the activity of neurotransmitters in the brain. “These drugs have never been shown to be effective in fibromyalgia patients, and there is evidence that opioids might even worsen fibromyalgia and other centralized pain states,” he said.
Clauw advises clinicians to integrate pharmacological treatments, such as gabapentinoids, trycyclics and serotonoin reuptake inhibitors, with nonpharmacological approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise and stress reduction.
“Sometimes the magnitude of treatment response for simple and inexpensive non-drug therapies exceeds that for pharmaceuticals,” said Clauw. “The greatest benefit is improved function, which should be the main treatment goal for any chronic pain condition. The majority of patients with fibromyalgia can see improvement in their symptoms and lead normal lives with the right medications and extensive use of non-drug therapies.”