The research, published in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatology, involved 35 patients with fibromyalgia, a condition that frequently involves symptoms such as neck pain, back pain, fatigue, muscle tenderness, sleep disturbance, altered mood and cognitive dysfunction.
This new study compared these patients with 14 closely matched healthy people and used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor brain activity while the participants were subjected, voluntarily, to different levels of painful stimuli. Those people with fibromyalgia were found to have increased connectivity between the S1 somatosensory cortex and the anterior insula. These regions of the brain are responsible in large part for processing the sensations of touch and determining the importance or impact of the stimuli.
What this means is that people with fibromyalgia may be hypersensitive to pain because of the way the brain is wired. Indeed, the patients who showed the most connectivity between these two areas were more likely to have reported higher levels of clinical pain prior to the experiment. This neurobiological mechanism for fibromyalgia symptoms such as neck pain, tender points, and hypersensitivity to pain could help researchers narrow down more effective treatments.
This research could also offer some solace to patients with fibromyalgia who feel that their symptoms are not taken seriously, even by physicians, because they “don’t look sick”.
Having a study that shows differences in brain function between people with and without fibromyalgia may allow patients to use biofeedback mechanisms, medications, and other types of therapy to alter the way the brain responds to painful stimuli. Specifically, fMRI may help determine who is most likely to benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy for fibromyalgia, a treatment that has helped many patients improve their quality of life with the condition.
Kim J, Loggia ML, Cahalan CM, Harris RE, Beissner F, Garcia RG, Kim H, Wasan AD, Edwards RR, Napadow V. The somatosensory link: S1 functional connectivity is altered by sustained pain and associated with clinical/autonomic dysfunction in fibromyalgia. Arthritis Rheumatol. 2015 Jan 26. doi: 10.1002/art.39043. [Epub ahead of print]