For years and years and years and years, people suffering with fibromyalgia have faced a battle on two fronts.

  1. They battle chronic pain and all of the associated physical, mental and emotional problems that come with chronic pain.
  2. They fight a public and medical perception that fibromyalgia is not a real medical condition. That the pain is all in their heads.

A new study, published in the November issue of the Journal of Nuclear Medicine, may help fibromyalgia patients on both battle fronts.

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The Study

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Using single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), researchers in France were able to detect functional abnormalities in certain regions in the brains of patients diagnosed with fibromyalgia, reinforcing the idea that symptoms of the disorder are related to a dysfunction in those parts of the brain where pain is processed.

“Fibromyalgia is frequently considered an ‘invisible syndrome’ since musculoskeletal imaging is negative,” said Eric Guedj, M.D., and lead author of the study. “Past imaging studies of patients with the syndrome, however, have shown above-normal cerebral blood flow (brain perfusion) in some areas of the brain and below-normal in other areas. After performing whole-brain scans on the participants, we used a statistical analysis to study the relationship between functional activity in even the smallest area of the brain and various parameters related to pain, disability and anxiety/depression.”

In the study, 20 women diagnosed with fibromyalgia and 10 healthy women as a control group responded to questionnaires to determine levels of pain, disability, anxiety and depression. SPECT was then performed, and positive and negative correlations were determined.

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The Results

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The researchers confirmed that patients with the syndrome exhibited brain perfusion abnormalities in comparison to the healthy subjects.

Further, these abnormalities were found to be directly correlated with the severity of the disease.

An increase in perfusion (hyperperfusion or excessive blood supply) was found in that region of the brain known to discriminate pain intensity, and a decrease (hypoperfusion or inadequate blood supply) was found within those areas thought to be involved in emotional responses to pain.

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Conclusions

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In the past, some researchers have thought that the pain reported by fibromyalgia patients was the result of depression rather than symptoms of a disorder. This study strongly refutes that belief.

According to the lead researcher, “Interestingly, we found that these functional abnormalities were independent of anxiety and depression status.”

This study also gives researchers a diagnostic tool to help predict a fibro patient’s response to a specific treatment and evaluate brain-processing recovery during follow-up.

“Fibromyalgia may be related to a global dysfunction of cerebral pain-processing,” Guedj added.

“This study demonstrates that these patients exhibit modifications of brain perfusion not found in healthy subjects and reinforces the idea that fibromyalgia is a ‘real disease/disorder.‘”

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What This Means For Fibromyalgia Patients

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This research does 3 important things for fibromyalgia patients:

  1. It gives legitimacy to their condition. No longer will family doctors, friends, family, employers, etc.. be able to tell fibro sufferers that their pain is not real, that it’s all in their heads.
  2. It gives researchers a tool to test treatment modalities.
  3. And now that they ‘know’ which areas of the brain are affected and how they are affected, they should be able to chart out a more direct route to a cure…or at least a treatment.

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