We don't know exactly what causes fibromyalgia, but now, thanks to French researchers, we have a clue. Fibromyalgia may be related to abnormal blood flow in specific areas of the brain.
Dr. Eric Guedj of the Centre Hospitalier-Universitaire de la Timone in Marseille, France, was the lead researcher in a study examining blood perfusion (abnormal blood flow) as a possible fibromyalgia cause.
"Past imaging studies of patients with [fibromyalgia] have shown above-normal cerebral blood flow (brain perfusion) in some areas of the brain and below-normal in other areas," explains Dr. Guedj in a press release about the study. "After performing whole-brain scans on the participants, we used a statistical analysis to study the relationship between functional activity in even the smallest area of the brain and various parameters related to pain, disability, and anxiety/depression."
Dr. Guedj's team studied 30 women, 20 with fibromyalgia and 10 without it. The women answered various questionnaires used in the medical research field to quantify such things as pain levels and how severely fibromyalgia limits patients' lives.
Then the women underwent single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT scan)—a special kind of brain scan. The researchers analyzed the women's answers to the questionnaires in conjunction with analyzing their brain scans.
Dr. Guedj's team confirmed that women with fibromyalgia have abnormal blood flow in two areas of the brain:
Additionally, Dr. Guedj's team found that if a participant's fibromyalgia symptoms were severe (as noted by the questionnaires), then the degree of blood perfusion was severe. In other words, the severity of the syndrome correlates with the severity of abnormal blood flow.
Interestingly, the team didn't find a correlation between blood perfusion and the participants' levels of anxiety or depression. That's important to note because previously, it's been suggested that fibromyalgia pain is linked to depression: fibromyalgia patients experience such widespread pain in part because of depression or anxiety.
Dr. Guedj sums it up nicely in a press release: "This study demonstrates that these patients exhibit modifications of brain perfusion not found in healthy subjects and reinforces the idea that fibromyalgia is a 'real disease/disorder'."
In other words, this study could help move fibromyalgia from syndrome to disease status because it has found a possible cause of fibromyalgia symptoms. Currently, fibromyalgia is considered a syndrome rather than a disease because there isn't one identifiable cause of it. Instead, there are signs and symptoms that point to a fibromyalgia diagnosis: for example, widespread pain, fatigue, trouble sleeping, and headaches.
The study could help the medical community better understand fibromyalgia and how to effectively treat it.
Fibromyalgia is a complex condition affecting 3 million to 10 million Americans—most of them women (hence why only women were used in the French study). Right now, there isn't one test used to diagnose fibromyalgia; doctors have to diagnose it by eliminating other possible diseases/syndromes and by paying careful attention to a patient's symptoms. This SPECT study could lead to a way to objectively confirm a fibromyalgia diagnosis.