We don’t yet know exactly what causes fibromyalgia, but research suggests that there’s an interaction between physical, mental and psychological factors.
The pain we feel is often affected by our emotions and moods – depression or anxiety can make the pain seem worse. At the same time, being in pain can lead to stress and anxiety.
Many people with fibromyalgia report that their symptoms started after a viral infection, a physical or mental trauma (like a car accident or bereavement) or following a period of stress and anxiety, for example in a relationship. The pain doesn’t have a physical cause but is something to do with the way your brain processes pain. This doesn’t mean that the feeling of pain is any less real, but because there’s no physical reason, fibromyalgia doesn’t cause any permanent damage to your joints.
People with fibromyalgia are more sensitive to physical pressure. This means that what would be a relatively minor knock for most people could be extremely painful for someone with fibromyalgia. It’s thought that this increased sensitivity could be related to chemical changes in the pain pathways in your body.
Sleep disturbance may also contribute to this increased sensitivity. Brainwave studies show that people with fibromyalgia often lose deep sleep. A number of things may lead to sleep disturbance, such as:
- pain from an injury or another condition such as arthritis
- stress at work or strain in personal relationships
- depression brought on by illness or unhappy events.
In an experiment where healthy volunteers were woken during each period of deep sleep, a number of them developed the typical signs and symptoms of fibromyalgia. Not surprisingly, a combination of pain, sleep disturbance and anxiety or depression can turn into a vicious cycle. A poor sleep pattern will contribute to the severe tiredness that often goes with fibromyalgia.