Medically unexplained physical symptoms cause non-stop head scratching to medical professionals. And fibromyalgia is a classic example. The condition is characterized by chronic sensations of musculoskeletal pain throughout the body and a heightened sensitivity to pressure. It exhibits a somewhat complex symptomatology and its exact cause remains unknown. To make matters more complicated, scientists think that many genes play a role. This makes fibromyalgia an extremely difficult condition to diagnose, and some have even contested that it is not a disorder or disease at all. A breakthrough made at the University of Colorado could change this scenario in the near future. For the first time, scientists have shed light on the neuropathology of fibromyalgia.
In the study, 72 patients were exposed to a series of multisensory stimuli while their brains were being fMRI-scanned. Thirty seven patients had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia prior to the experiment. The other 35 were the control group. Comparing the functional fMRI scans of both groups, scientists discovered three neurological biomarkers in fibromyalgia patients. They soon found that these neural signatures—patterns of neurological activity—could successfully identify fibromyalgia patients with an accuracy of 93%.
According to the researchers, this discovery is the first step in what could be a major breakthrough in neuroimaging-based clinical diagnosis, which would help health professionals successfully diagnose fibromyalgia patients in the future and end the debate about whether it is justifiable to diagnose fibromyalgia as a disorder in its own right. The director of the university’s Cognitive and Affective Control Laboratory, Tor Wager, classifies fibromyalgia as a disorder of the central nervous system.
Marina Lepez-Sola, lead author of the study, pointed out how neuroimaging tools could even help identify subtypes of fibromyalgia patients. This stems from the fact that the neurophysiological pathways of the symptoms can differ from patient to patient, which is why the condition has been so difficult to diagnose in the first place. Consequently, neuroimaging-based diagnosis could enable more personalized treatment plans for each patient, according to the researchers.
However, given that the interpretation of the results depends on the observation of consistent neural patterns, the sample size of this study is too small to ensure the statistical reliability and empirical validity of the inferred correlations. Therefore, scientists hope to see further confirmation in subsequent and larger-scale research efforts. Further observations could not only confirm the current findings but also help fine-tune the neural biomarkers of fibromyalgia to a higher degree of accuracy.
Fibromyalgia affects two times more women than men, typically appearing during middle age. It is thought that 2 - 8% of the population suffers from the condition, with an estimated 75% of cases being undiagnosed.