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Understanding Fibromyalgia (FM): Why Does Even the Tender Touch Hurt?

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Such is the basis of study for a team of researchers from the University of Florida (UF), led by Dr. Roland Staud, an associate professor of medicine at UF’s College of Medicine who is also affiliated with the UF Brain Institute. Working with two other professors from the university, Dr. Staud will use a nearly $800,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently awarded to him to continue his fibromyalgia (FM) studies for the next four years.

Staud’s research has uncovered that those with FM have an abnormal central nervous system reaction that turns the response from ordinary repetitive stimulation into unbearable pain. This neurological finding is of particular importance to Staud who asserts that FM patients, in addition to their symptoms, routinely deal with those who dismiss their disease as “all in their head.”

“We now have good evidence that shows that it’s not a psychological abnormality, but that there is a neurological abnormality present,” says Staud.

Evidence of the central nervous system disorder was found by conducting a series of repetitive stimulation tests on those with FM and on healthy participants. Warm plates were repeatedly placed on participants’ arms and hands. While the healthy participants reported feeling a sensation from the plates, it was not a painful one. Those with FM however, reported that with each placement of the plate, the sensation would magnify into the resultant crippling and unbearable pain.

Staud explained why this happens: “When a sensation signal reaches the spinal cord, the signal can be omitted, changed or augmented. If it is augmented, then something that is innocuous, such as pressure on the skin, can then be perceived as a painful stimulus.”

Jessica LeMay, a patient of Dr. Staud’s since being diagnosed with FM in 1993, is hopeful that not only will his research lead to more effective treatment but also a better understanding of FM by the general public. “In our society, you either get better or you die, and fibromyalgia patients don’t do that,” she said. “We don’t fit in the mold, so people don’t know what to do with us.”

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