Fibromyalgia (FM) is a very strange condition. Can you think of any other condition that creates so many symptoms and yet all the blood and imaging tests come back negative? FM symptoms include chronic fatigue, muscle aches and pains, depression, sleep disturbance, memory affects, and more. The degree or severity of FM varies from mild to severe, leaving some totally disabled and distraught. So, the question of the month is, where does the pain come from?
Since the usual markers of injury are negative (that is, blood and other tests), we can tell you first that the pain is NOT coming from damaged tissue such as muscle, bone, organs, and the like. If it did, abnormal enzymes &/or inflammatory tests would result. Rather, the origin of pain appears to be arising from within the central nervous system. That is to say, there are portions of the brain and spinal cord where pain signals are received and when they reach a certain level or threshold, the sensation is felt. When the sensory input is below that level, it will not be felt. In fact, there are MANY MORE incoming sensory signals that are NOT felt compared to those that are. This “thermostat-like” function is vital so we DO NOT feel sensation that is transmitted to the brain. This is why we don’t feel the clothes hanging from our backs or the shoes on our feet (unless the laces are tied too tight!). It’s been said that if we DID “sense” all the incoming signals we would, in a sense, “…short circuit.”
In the FM patient, this thermostat is “messed up.” It is set lower than what is considered normal, and as a result, patients do sense or feel more than they should. This “nervous system overload,” sometimes referred to as a “sensory storm,” occurs in the FM sufferer. A more fancy term called “central sensitization” can be searched and you will find a LOT to read about this interesting subject (check it out)!
So how does this hypersensitive situation start? Fibromyalgia is classified into two main categories – type I and type II. In type I, or primary FM, the cause is unknown. The cause could include one’s genetic make-up, but the bottom line is, we really don’t know. In type II, or secondary FM, some other known condition or situation can be identified such as irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, a trauma, or following an illness or infection. Some also feel the lack of sleep or sleep loss can cause FM. This is because it takes about four hours of sustained sleep to reach deep sleep, and because of frequent sleep interruptions, the person never reaches deep sleep. Over time, deprived of the relaxing deep sleep benefits, the body gradually tightens up, “re-setting the thermostat” and too much sensory information reaches the brain, resulting in overload, and a heightened pain level is perceived. Studies have shown that when sleep is restored, many FM patients gradually improve and function better. This focus on sleep restoration is important in the management strategies of FM treatment. We all know our tolerance to just about everything suffers when we are over-tired, similar to the toddler who cries at the drop of a dime when they need a nap.
Chiropractic adjustments, certain nutrients like melatonin, valerian root, and vitamin B complex can facilitate sleep restoration. Treatment for sleep apnea can also help patients with FM. As we’ve said before, FM is usually multi-factorial and including chiropractic in the FM treatment “team” is essential for a satisfying result!