Scientists have finally found the main source of pain in fibromyalgia patients, and it is not stemming from any psychological cause as many doctors have believed in the past. Rather, it is linked with abnormal fibres in the skin, particularly the skin of the hands, called arteriole-venule shunts. The first study was performed by Dr. Frank Rice of Integrated Tissue Dynamics last year, and now, his team has learned even more about how the abnormal nerve fibres are influenced by estrogen, which provides an explanation for why fibromyalgia is much more common in women than in men. The research team has also found new information about exactly how the additional nerve fibres cause pain; an exciting breakthrough that could lead to new treatments for the disorder.
The original findings were published in the journal Pain Medicine after three years of extensive research. Dr. Rice says that the margin of error for his study is so small, he feels confident stating that the data can pave the way for doctors to be able to positively diagnose fibromyalgia and for new, more effective medicines to be developed. “This discovery provides concrete evidence of a fibromyalgia-specific pathology which can now be used for diagnosing the disease, and as a novel starting point for developing more effective therapeutics,” he says.
His team is currently trying to raise money for even more widespread studies, but his research has been ongoing for the past year. One of the most exciting new pieces of information his team has found is that the arteriole-venule shunts are actually influenced by estrogen. For this reason, Dr. Rice wants to pursue estrogen therapy as a possible treatment path. While it is too early to say whether estrogen treatment could be effective, knowing the nerve fibres react with estrogen gives the scientists an area to focus on as they work toward new medications for the disorder.
In the first study, the researchers found that women with fibromyalgia have a huge increase in arteriole-venule shunts in the skin of their hands. These shunts, which are thought to be the main source of pain, help to regulate body temperature, and the increase in these nerve fibres might help to explain why patients who suffer from this condition tend to have extremely painful hands, and why their symptoms flare up the most in cold weather.
One of the most significant findings, though, was that since the shunts regulate blood flow to the muscles, having a hugely increased number of shunts could reduce oxygenation and blood getting to the muscles, thereby causing increased pain. This may explain why massage and exercise tends to help fibromyalgia patients: the more blood flow, the less pain is experienced by the patient. The less blood flow to the muscles, the more the brain perceives pain and the more inflammation occurs. This could also account for the increased inflammation seen in fibromyalgia patients.
The findings support a wide body of previously published research on reduced blood flow and pain response, such as the data on peripheral artery disease, for example. Reduced blood flow also results in a buildup of lactic acid in the muscles, leading to extreme fatigue and achiness. Dr. Rice and his team are now looking at fibromyalgia as a neuropathy in the skin rather than it being “all in the head” as so many patients suffering from this condition have been told.
Dr. Rice’s new findings for this year will be presented at the Annual Society for Neuroscience Meeting held in November. A main source of pain for fibromyalgia has finally been found, and research is ongoing. These discoveries can certainly serve to bring hope for healing to the millions who suffer from this devastating condition.