Brain of People With Fibromyalgia May Handle Pain Sensations Differently


A series of brain scans on people suffering from fibromyalgia show that they don’t manage pain as well as normal people. Patients seem to have altered brain process and this could explain why they tend to feel pain more frequently and intensely. Fibromyalgia also make these people don’t respond as well to any narcotic painkiller. This finding was published on November 2013 in the Arthritis and Rheumatism journal.

Healthy people without symptoms of fibromyalgia could mentally alleviate certain types of pain. They can dampen pains, if not eliminate them. Unfortunately, people with fibromyalgia won’t respond similarly to medication or any natural mechanisms for managing pain. Little is known about the exact cause of fibromyalgia, but it usually involves widespread muscle and joint pain. In the United States the disorder affect 0.5 percent and 3.4 percent of women. Older women aged 60 to 79 are the most susceptible group.

For this particular study, researchers gathered 14 healthy people and 31 people with fibromyalgia. Researchers used MRI scans to observe the brain of participants while blood pressure cuff squeeze their calf painfully. The pressure was adjusted so that participants, both healthy and suffering from fibromyalgia would rate the pain sensation around 50 points on a scale of 100. This is aimed to simulate very deep muscular pains, which is closer to the type of pain that fibromyalgia patients are experiencing.

Participants are given visual cues on when the blood pressure cuff would begin to squeeze or release its grip. This allows them to observe how the brain may response to anticipated pain or relief. It became clear that patients suffering from fibromyalgia could reach the same pain rating as normal participants with much less pressure.

Immediately, health professionals could notice key difference in how their brain deals with pain. On people with fibromyalgia, one specific brain area that shows altered responses is the VTA (ventral tegmental area) that is located in the center area of the brain and delivers reward and punishment responses. It controls how dopamine is released, a pain-relieving chemical in the brain. The VTA has an important role in how people respond to pain medications and it’s often associated with behaviors of people with drug addiction.

In healthy participants, their VTA is activated before and during pain occurs; but it is deactivated when the relief signal is received. The VTA rewards normal people with some relief when they are given cue that the pain sensation would end soon. But this mechanism is entirely blunted in patients suffering from fibromyalgia.