The pain experienced by fibromyalgia sufferers is the result of a mismatch between sensory and motor systems, suggests new research in the journal Rheumatology.
The novel experiment that led to these findings involved patients looking at a reflection of one arm whilst moving their other arm in a different direction which was hidden behind the mirror. This created a mismatch between what the brain sees via sensory input and what it feels through the motor system that controls movement.
The patients reported feeling a transient increase in pain, temperature change or heaviness in their hidden limb - all symptoms of a "flare up" of their condition. This suggests that a mismatch between sensory and motor neurons could be at the root of the fibromyalgia.
"The chronic pain experienced by people with fibromyalgia is hard to understand because there are no obvious clinical signs that pain should be experienced," said Dr Candy McCabe, one of the researchers involved in the University of Bath study. "We have shown that by confusing the motor and sensory systems we can exacerbate the symptoms felt by people diagnosed with the condition."
McCabe added that the findings add to a growing body of evidence that many of the symptoms of this common disorder may be perpetuated, or even triggered, by this sensory-motor conflict. "We have had some success to date in using a similar technique to help alleviate the symptoms of this kind of chronic pain. This works by helping the brain to see a limb moving freely without pain - although in reality it is a reflection of their pain-free limb," she explained.
People with fibromyalgia complain of widespread pain, multiple tender points, stiffness, sleep disturbance and fatigue. The new study provides strong evidence that sensory-motor conflict is at the heart of the condition.
Ninety percent of those affected by fibromyalgia are women. In most cases it develops between the ages of 30 and 60, but it can develop in people of any age, including children and the elderly.
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Source: University of Bath