Joylynn Nelson of Logan, Utah, traces her fibromyalgia symptoms back to the snowy December night 23 years ago when she and her young daughter were racing to finish Christmas errands — and collided head-on with a train. They both survived, but it took two decades for Nelson to understand the link between that traumatic event and her fibromyalgia pain. She’s not alone — many people suffering from fibromyalgia date their condition back to a traumatic event.
“The contemporary thinking is that if you are a genetically predisposed individual, then a head and neck trauma may precipitate the onset of fibromyalgia,” explains Kim Jones, PhD, an associate professor at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. She adds that people whose fibromyalgia symptoms begin with trauma might have developed the condition later anyway — many have a family history of chronic pain.
Even though many experts link fibromyalgia symptoms to injury that affects the head and neck, traumatic triggers of fibromyalgia can be much more widespread. “Any type of trauma or stressful event, such as major surgical procedures, being deployed to war, certain types of infections, all trigger fibromyalgia, and most of those are not associated with any trauma to the spine,” clarifies rheumatologist Daniel Clauw, MD, a professor of medicine and director of the Chronic Pain & Fatigue Research Center in the anesthesiology department at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Traumatic experiences that are correlated with fibromyalgia include:
- Emotional trauma.
- Certain viruses, such as hepatitis C and HIV.
- A childhood separation from your mother that lasted longer than six months.
- Living through a war.
I didn’t have any [neurological] problems before the accident. About four to six months after the accident, I was experiencing numb fingers [and] aches and pains throughout my body.-Susan Lodato, fibromyalgia patient
For some people, understanding the traumatic trigger can lead to hope of relief. “We just didn’t see the train and didn’t hear it, and we collided,” Nelson, now 56, recalls. Ten months later the bruises were gone, but she realized that the ongoing, pervasive quality of her pain was unusual.
“I had pain that seemed like it was coming out of my forearms and femurs,” she says. “I kept telling the doctor that this is pain radiating out of my bones.” But neither she nor her doctor could rationally explain how the train wreck contributed to her pain. A year and a half after the accident, she finally received her fibromyalgia diagnosis. Always a self-described type A personality and naturally active, Nelson says she just powered through many of the fibromyalgia symptoms when they hit. Nonetheless, she was seeking relief through fibromyalgia treatment.
One day, decades later, she responded to an ad from a Logan-area chiropractor, Cory Kingston, DC, who was looking for people with chronic pain to participate in a pilot study on pain relief. Kingston argues that a whiplash event, like a car wreck, causes the head to accelerate faster than the cervical spine and then snap back. Although people’s perception is that their posture is more or less normal, the event locks the head and neck in a forward position, resetting the body’s trauma response in some people so that their central nervous system continues to react on a daily basis, as though it’s under threat. The trauma also affects the cervical spine, creating ongoing stress on the body.
Kingston has developed an intensive program of exercises, including traction, intended to correct that response. His program also includes personalized lifestyle and dietary changes, such as giving up carbonated soda. Nelson went through the program and reports that she has had significant relief from her symptoms and finds that she feels worse on days when she does not follow the program. She and her husband recently finished building their own house by hand, which she says she could not have done without Kingston’s help.
Unfortunately, not everyone whose fibromyalgia is triggered by trauma will find relief in the same way. Kingston advises all people with fibromyalgia to be cautious about believing claims of quick and easy relief from trauma-related chronic pain. He also advises asking for some evidence, such as the results of clinical studies or before-and-after X-rays, that support any practitioner’s or clinic’s claims.
Kingston notes that even though experts are increasingly aware of the correlation between trauma and fibromyalgia, many doctors are not. But if you believe that a traumatic event could be the trigger for your pain, it’s worth further investigation.