Fibromyalgia is a widespread chronic pain condition affecting nearly 3% of people around the globe – but what causes this mysterious, debilitating illness? We’ll be unpacking 4 of the common causes researchers are pointing the finger at.
Fibromyalgia affects around 2% of Aussies, with middle-aged women the most commonly afflicted. It’s a painful, oftentimes debilitating condition that often goes untreated – usually due to a lack of diagnosis. There are a few reasons for this – firstly, the symptoms frequently overlap with a number of other conditions, leading to mistaken diagnoses. Fibromyalgia involves chronic pain, tenderness and sensory issues resulting from the over-sensitisation of the neural pain pathways. One of the other major reasons many people suffer for so long without a diagnosis is because, after getting assessed, the symptoms of the conditions – like pain, fatigue and cognitive issues – lack visible or evident abnormalities. This means doctors might overlook the chance of fibromyalgia, sometimes even dismissing that there’s an issue at all. Fibromyalgia often develops as a result of a build-up of maladaptive body responses, though infection and diseases can also lead to the development of the condition. Take a look at the common symptoms that plague those with fibromyalgia:
- Bodily pain, achiness and stiffness
- Fatigue and weakness
- Depression, anxiety and low mood
- Sleeping difficulty or irregularity
- Memory and concentration problems
- Headaches and migraine headaches
- Brain fog – often referred to as fibro fog
- Sensory sensitivity
- Excess sweating
While you might be familiar with these uncomfortable and debilitating symptoms, you may not know what actually causes this condition to come about in the first place. Let’s dive into it.
Pain signalling disfunction
Researchers believe one of the biggest culprits for those debilitating fibromyalgia symptoms to be an abnormality in the body’s pain signal functions. This is often down to the nervous system’s inability to manage pain signals, leading to imbalanced chemical levels in our body – from the brain to our nerves that carry those pain signals – resulting in a drastically magnified experience of pain.
Our hormones play a major role in the way we process pain – these include serotonin, dopamine – the love hormone – and norepinephrine all assist our body with processing pain. When we don’t have enough of these feel-good hormones, it’s believed that our pain signals could be disrupted and, in the case of fibromyalgia patients, increase sensitivity to these sensations.
Cytokines are secreted by our immune system’s cells, and they’re known to play a major role in inflammation – but they’ve also been linked to the development of fibromyalgia. It’s the IL-6 and IL-8 cytokines which are particularly held to account, with studies showing these may affect our neurons, and therefore the sensation of pain.
Fibromyalgia can be genetic, with researchers believing there may be an abnormal gene that raises your chances of developing the condition. This is because it’s thought that our pain responses may be affected by particular genes, with research indicating there could be some genetic responsibility for some people reacting more intensely to sensations than others. In fact, one study suggests genetic influences could be to blame for nearly 50% of people’s susceptibility to fibromyalgia.
It’s worth noting that while the research lacking here, ultra-processed, sugary foods may significantly worsen the severity of fibromyalgia symptoms. Some studies have connected these foods – particularly those with excess sugars – to an increase in fibromyalgia pain. Another reason is that excess fructose can result in obesity – this is because of the visceral fat it promotes – and studies have shown that excess fat can exacerbate pain, inactivity and joint strain. Here are the foods to keep to a minimum:
- Ultra-processed cereals and muesli bars
- Commercial baked cakes and cookies
- Fast food
- Ultra-processed frozen premade meals
- Savoury snacks like chips and crisps
- Flavoured yoghurts
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