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What Causes Fibromyalgia? Here’s What Doctors Know

Researchers have a couple theories about what causes fibromyalgia.

Perhaps the only thing worse than coping with chronic pain from fibromyalgia is not knowing what’s specifically causing your fibromyalgia pain. 

Fibromyalgia is a complicated and not well-understood condition that causes widespread pain (particularly in joints and soft tissues), fatigue, and other symptoms. About 5 million U.S. adults have fibromyalgia; 80 to 90 percent of patients are women, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

What causes fibromyalgia is still unknown, but doctors and researchers have a few theories. First of all, several risk factors contribute to the development of fibromyalgia, such as a physical or emotional trauma (like a car accident or post-traumatic stress disorder).

Additionally, abnormal sensory processing in the brain may cause increased pain sensation. Studies have found a variety of physiological abnormalities in patients with fibromyalgia, such as a decreased blood flow to the thalamus region in the brain or lower levels of serotonin, among others.

Another theory for causes of fibromyalgia pain that scientists are still studying is the concept of central sensitization. The body has chemicals that signal pain to the brain, and in the brain of a patient with fibromyalgia, there may be an increase in these chemicals. This makes the person with fibromyalgia more sensitive to low levels of pain, like a pat on the back.

Interestingly, some people are more vulnerable to fibromyalgia than others, and the number-one risk factor is gender. Many women begin to show symptoms of fibromyalgia during childbearing years. Other risk factors include age (it is more commonly diagnosed in older people) and a family history of fibromyalgia. Additionally, fibromyalgia often co-occurs with conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and ankylosing spondylitis (a type of arthritis that causes the vertebrae of the spine to fuse). 

There is no cure for fibromyalgia, but it can be treated. Here’s more information on treatments for fibromyalgia.


Holly Atkinson, MD

This video features Holly Atkinson, MD. Dr. Atkinson specializes in internal medicine and is an award-winning medical journalist.

Duration: 2:26. Last Updated On: Nov. 8, 2017, 6:14 p.m.
Reviewed by: Dr Mera Goodman, Preeti Parikh, MD, . Review date: June 20, 2014
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