The great argument on the subject of fibromyalgia is whether or not there is a psychological or social factor that may lead to a person developing the disease. There are many theories for and against this idea and more work needs to be done to get to the kernel of the truth that is embedded within all the talk and theory.
The medical community has done well to at least mention psychosocial issues as contributing factors, even if they haven’t been proven as primary causal factors for fibromyalgia. It is believed that psycho-social factors affect fibromyalgia in three distinct ways. Psychosocial stressors make one more susceptible to fibromyalgia and can act as a kind of trigger for the onset of fibromyalgia, and may serve to perpetuate the condition. Studies do suggest a greater prevalence of severe emotional, sexual, or physical abuse in fibromyalgia patients as against the general population.
Statistics show that such abuse originated with family members or in relationships. For many in the medical community, this fact carries with it a strong suggestion that long-term stress or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be implicated as at least one culprit behind the development of fibromyalgia.
PTSD, an anxiety disorder first classified in 1980, occurs in response to a specific trauma. This disorder can and often does last for many years with varied symptoms such as an exaggerated startle response to auditory stimulus, poor concentration, interrupted sleep or insomnia, mood swings, a feeling of hopelessness, irritability, and apathy. Some diagnostic tests show changes in the brain in PTSD patients which likely occur due to long-term exposure to stress hormones such as cortisol.
One study of particular interest, performed in the year 2004, concentrated on men with fibromyalgia, a disease that is more common among the female population. This study found a strong correlation between fibromyalgia and PTSD in Israeli soldiers. Fibromyalgia was found in 49% of those men with long-diagnosed PTSD as compared with only 5% of those who suffered from depression as a result of their wartime service. There was no fibromyalgia at all in the control group of healthy male soldiers. Lead investigator of the Hadassah Hebrew University School of Medicine study Howard Amital commented that, “Normal average males have no tender spots on their bodies, so it was very unusual to find such a high number of men showing this level of pain.”
Those opposed to the idea that there may be a psycho social element to fibromyalgia feel that the admission of such causal factors may lend credence to the idea that fibromyalgia is “all in the head.” But the nay-sayers would do well to remember that psychosomatic illnesses are real, physical illnesses, brought on by psycho-social issues. Those who wish to argue against the psychosocial causal factors of fibromyalgia would do well, instead, to fight against the stigma attached to mental health issues.