It is a chronic condition that renders sufferers so sensitive that even the lightest touch triggers waves of excruciating pain. Fibromyalgia is thought to affect up to a million Britons, commonly women over 40, and experts have likened the debilitating sensations to ‘death by a thousand needles’.
Other symptoms include lack of concentration, memory loss, headaches and muscle stiffness. And for a long time there was little doctors could do to help quell the agony.
Yet today, with the help of sophisticated scanning techniques, pain specialists have been able to pinpoint the parts of the brain responsible for the condition.
Waves of excruciating pain: Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that renders sufferers so sensitive that even the lightest touch triggers it
Using a combination of psychotherapy and medicines more commonly used to treat depression and epilepsy, many sufferers are able to find relief.
‘Patients with fibromyalgia typically have what we call tender points,’ says Dr Ernest Choy, consultant rheumatologist at King’s College Hospital in London.
‘There are 18 sites throughout the body – in the neck, back, arms and legs – where, with light pressure, they experience pain, when a normal individual wouldn’t.
‘As well as pain, patients usually complain of a degree of fatigue and poor sleep quality. Depression and chronic pain often go hand-in-hand – it’s so hard to cope with such grinding discomfort every single day.’
There is no specific test for fibromyalgia so it is often diagnosed once other conditions, including chronic fatigue syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis, have been ruled out.
The patient will have suffered widespread pain for three months on both sides of the body, above and below the waist, as well as pain in at least 11 of the 18 known tender points when pressed.
‘Unfortunately, fibromyalgia isn’t well understood by many clinicians because pain is often a very subjective symptom,’ says Dr Choy.
‘According to a European survey, it takes approximately 18 months to two years to get a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. There are still a lot of clinicians who don’t even know about it.’
The exact cause of the condition isn’t known but, according to Dr Choy, research has highlighted that it is likely to be due to a problem with how the nervous system handles pain.
‘When a normal individual experiences pain, there is what we call a coping process in the brain that manages it,’ he explains.‘In some patients with fibromyalgia, that process isn’t working properly so their threshold for experiencing pain is much lower.
‘Recent advances in assessing the way the brain works, using functional magnetic resonance imaging [fMRI], have really changed our understanding of the disease.
‘It’s clear that the way the brains of people with fibromyalgia process pain is very different from normal individuals.’