Our fibromyalgia research highlights

19 April 2022
Collette in the kitchen with her husband.

Fibromyalgia is a long-term condition that causes pain and tenderness all over the body. People with fibromyalgia can also experience a wide range of other symptoms, including poor sleep, fatigue and difficulty concentrating (brain fog).

Unlike arthritis, this pain isn’t because of problems with your joints, bones or muscles. It’s thought to be caused by your nervous system not being able to control or process pain signals from other parts of your body. However, we don’t yet fully understand how and why fibromyalgia occurs. This means that it can sometimes be difficult to diagnose, particularly as the symptoms vary from person to person.

For example, Stephen, 37, started to experience pain when he was 14. He was eventually diagnosed with fibromyalgia; it took 14 years from the first symptom to diagnosis. Read his story.

We are committed to funding world-leading research into conditions of chronic pain including fibromyalgia. We recently launched the Advanced Pain Discovery Platform, a £24m partnership between Versus Arthritis and UK Research and Innovation, which will bring together experts from many different areas of pain research, aiming to transform our knowledge of the underlying causes of chronic pain.

Research will help to develop knowledge, understand causes and improve diagnosis and treatment options for people living with fibromyalgia.

Here are some of our fibromyalgia research highlights.

Investigating the causes of fibromyalgia

There’s growing evidence that chronic pain is associated with differences and/or changes in how the brain functions. For example, how the brain interprets signals from different senses (sight, touch and sound). People with fibromyalgia may also experience changes in how they perceive the space surrounding their body.

Research led by Dr Jane Aspell at Anglia Ruskin University is exploring the use of virtual reality body illusions to investigate interactions between the brain and body, and study how people with fibromyalgia perceive the space surrounding their body.

It’s hoped this project will increase our understanding of how the brain processes signals and perceives the body, and how this may differ in fibromyalgia.

Read more about this research.

Improving our understanding of pain and fatigue

Studies suggest people with fibromyalgia may have problems with their bodies' “fight and flight” response to stress. Blood samples taken from people with fibromyalgia may also show increased signs of inflammation compared to people without the condition.

Research led by Dr Jessica Eccles at University of Sussex is investigating how the brain responses for pain and fatigue are affected by the body's ability to control the fight or flight response, and by increases in inflammation.

This could help us to better understand why people with fibromyalgia experience pain and fatigue, and discover potential future treatments for the condition.

Read more about this research.

Improving delivery of healthcare for people with fibromyalgia

There’s limited evidence available on the most effective way to organise health services to best support people with fibromyalgia. This can lead to some people with fibromyalgia feeling dissatisfied with their care.

Professor Gary Macfarlane at the University of Aberdeen is working with people with fibromyalgia and health and social care professionals to develop a new care model for people with fibromyalgia.

Professor Gary Macfarlane said:

“People with fibromyalgia have told us about the long journey to receive a diagnosis and that after the diagnosis there is often no support available, despite the fact that there is good evidence on approaches which can improve symptoms and quality of life. We are looking across the UK at centres which have developed care pathways to identify the key elements in those valued by patients. “

It’s hoped this research will lead to developing services which will help to ensure better outcomes for patients.

Read more about this research.

Researching alternative ways to diagnose fibromyalgia

Previous research has confirmed that small nerve fibres (the pain-generating nerves) are damaged in around half of people with fibromyalgia, but currently this can only be diagnosed using skin biopsies at specialist centres.

These small nerve fibres can be seen in the eyes, so we’re funding research led by Dr Uazman Alam at the University of Liverpool to see if a new type of eye test can be used to identify and study small fibre nerve damage.

The researchers are using corneal confocal microscopy (a sensitive microscope technique that allows researchers to observe the structure of cells in the eye) to diagnose damage to the small nerve fibres in the eye. If it proves effective, this could provide a non-invasive, time-efficient alternative for diagnosis.

The researchers also hope to better understand how the function of the nerve fibres is changed in fibromyalgia, and how this contributes to pain in the condition.

Read more about this research.

Developing new treatments

There’s not yet a single effective treatment for fibromyalgia , so finding new and better treatments is important to reduce the pain. In people with fibromyalgia, the brain can struggle to interpret pain signals, causing them to be misinterpreted. This results in continued overactivity in the nervous system, causing pain and other symptoms.

Research we’re funding at the University of Manchester, led by Dr Richard Brown, is aiming to develop a new treatment called perceptual training or ‘Pe Tra’.

The treatment involves patients completing a simple computerised task (a bit like ‘brain training’), which is designed to address the problems underlying fibromyalgia over time. It is hoped that this may reduce pain in people with fibromyalgia, by reversing the problem that the nervous system has with interpreting pain signals. If shown to be effective, this could provide a new treatment option for people with fibromyalgia.

Read more about this research.


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