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What Causes Fibromyalgia?


By Karen Lee Richards*

Researchers have yet to find a definitive cause of fibromyalgia.  While not the primary cause, we do know that FM is often triggered by some kind of trauma.  It may be a physical trauma like an illness or injury; or it could be an emotional trauma that produces severe, often prolonged, stress.

Current research seems to indicate that some people have a genetic predisposition to fibromyalgia, although the symptoms usually do not show up until triggered by one of these traumas. We know that fibromyalgia often occurs in more than one family member. In fact, the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, which has a pediatric pain program, says approximately 75% of children diagnosed with juvenile fibromyalgia have a family member who also has FM.

Fibromyalgia research has identified numerous physiological abnormalities that are present in most people with FM but so far none that can clearly be considered the cause. It’s possible that there may turn out to be subsets of FM and each of the subsets could have a different cause.

Many theories as to possible causes of FM are currently being studied. One theory involving a dopamine deficiency in the brain hypothesizes that a trauma or significant stressor turns on an individual’s “fight-or-flight” response. Since this response is designed to help the person function in an emergency situation, it usually only lasts a short time and then turns itself off. But when the stress becomes prolonged, the fight-or-flight response gets stuck in the “on” position and the person’s body remains in a state of high alert. This results in a loss of stage four sleep, which appears to cause pain amplification throughout the body.

Other promising theories include small nerve fiber damage, excessive sensory nerve fibers around specialized blood vessel structures located in the palms of the hands and the herpes simplex-1 virus. Many holistic health care practitioners believe fibromyalgia results when a variety of health imbalances combine with physical and/or emotional stressors to create a “perfect storm” in the body.

Prognosis for Fibromyalgia

Although there is not as yet a cure for fibromyalgia, over the past two decades, researchers have made a great deal of progress in unraveling the mysteries of this painful illness. The more they learn about the causes and effects of fibromyalgia, the closer we come to finding better treatments, possible preventative measures and one day, hopefully, a cure. All in all, the prognosis for fibromyalgia is encouraging.

* Karen Lee Richards is ProHealth’s Editor-in-Chief. A fibromyalgia patient herself, she co-founded the nonprofit organization now known as the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA) and served as its vice-president for eight years. She was also the executive editor of Fibromyalgia AWARE, the very first full-color, glossy magazine devoted to FM and other invisible illnesses. After leaving the NFA, Karen served as the Guide to Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for the New York Times website About.com, and then for eight years as the Chronic Pain Health Guide for The HealthCentral Network.

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