Is Fibromyalgia a ‘Psychosomatic’ Disorder?

155643233x_01__sx140_sy225_sclzzzzzzz_” Trust one who has gone through it”, Virgil

Writing those words, in fact, even thinking about the title makes me feel uncomfortable! Who wants to be labeled as one whose pain is thought to be “JUST in your head” implying it is not real? But, before we go off into a tailspin about that specific demeaning-sounding word, I should begin by saying what I now believe psychosomatic to mean. It certainly does not suggest that those of us with fibromyalgia  are hysterics who malinger just to get attention. But, maybe, just maybe, our pain is caused by emotions that are unconsciously deep seated, trapped in past trauma and ARE in our head (brain).  Such emotions as anger, sadness, anxiety, fear, rage  and others can be kept in a closed segment of our minds without taking them out to examine and work with consciously. After all, pain perceptions come from our body’s nociceptors, funneled up to the brain. Psychosomatic does not mean the pain is not real, but that pain comes from the brain in the stored memories.

Being female, a person of colour, economically disadvantaged, or of marginalized races or ethnic groups, or a sexual orientation that differs from the majority, or anyone who has been victimized/abused in some way, or has been taught to care for others to the exclusion of themselves can usually result in a plethora of thoughts and feelings that eventually evoke painful body experiences. Other types of pain, like that from surgery or an accident also become stored in our brains inciting fear upon recall. What if those thoughts of emotional or physical trauma become lodged in our brain (the amygdala wherein lies the ‘flight or fight’ tendency) and are expressed as pain in various parts of our bodies? That is what I mean by psychosomatic. Our brain has probably stored those unhappy emotions and feelings and they may manifest themselves through painful bodily sensations. The brain then takes those stored unpleasant memories in the unconscious part of the brain and when stress or excitement occurs, activates the nervous system to take flight or fight because there is perceived danger! Furthermore, as Dr.Peter Levine suggests in his book Waking the Tiger Healing Trauma there is another aspect to all this, that is freezing , that aspect within the nervous system that freezes these emotions. I think this can only occur in the highly sensitive person because not all people who have experienced sexism, racism, classism or other kinds of abuse/bias/prejudice or physical trauma develop fibromyalgia. This highly sensitive/overly empathetic person can be described as having ’emotional intelligence’ . Read: The Body Has a Mind of Its Own by Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee, particularly Chapter 10, (which is a phenomenal book by the way). The Blakeslee duo cite Dr. Hugo Critchley whose research found that people with greater empathy have thicker gray matter in the right frontol lobe (the insula) of the brain. My question would be: is this because of life long highly empathetic tendencies from which the thickness evolved as a result of early socialization or was the person born that way and if so, why more so with women? The authors suggest that it is because of the higher level of testosterone in men which makes them less empathetic. Once again, in my search for answers I am left in a quandry. Is it nature or nurture or both?

What if the pain from the unconscious part of the brain expresses itself with tension in a particular body part and that area becomes somewhat oxygen deprived, causing pain? This is the view of Dr. John E. Sarno in his 2006 book The Divided Mind The Epidemic of Mindbody Disorders in which he discusses fibromyalgia in somewhat lengthy excerpts. If he is correct (and I am certainly not sure about this), then we have reason to believe that we have been over medicalized by the health care system. How do we get to those unconscious thoughts and rid ourselves of pain and are they truly frozen? Are these emotions actually the root cause of our pain? Dr. Sarno has specific ideas about this. His view is that only through mindbody medicine can we begin to heal. I urge readers to find blogs or books about this and other branches of psychotherapy, like somatic psychology and in particular other issues related to brain/mind/body such as brain mapping and neuroplasticity.  The more that we fibro sufferers learn and unlearn the more we can help one another understand the mysteries of this syndrome. Personally the more I read the less sure I am about anything, but slowly some in-sights are evolving, although at a very basic level of understanding! It is easy to remain a skeptic but we must continue our search for new approaches to dealing with pain. But all I read seems to underscore that constant awareness through mindfulness meditation, and deep diaphragmatic breathing in a disciplined way is a primary route to healing. All the scientists whose work I read  seem to concur. I don’t know if fibromyalgia is psychosomatic or not, but it deserves our attention, and if people suggest to us “it’s just in your head”, we can say “yes, it is, because our minds and brains are so highly intelligent” 🙂

19 comments

  1. Murieal Mathis says:

    Wow, you hit it ont he nose. Thank you because you absolutely describing me, the pain in my heart affects my mind, and my body. i truly agree and understand. Whats so crazy is every time I go through something that opens up old wounds, and it seems I go through it with a new person, almost the same problems from the last, with added unecessaries to boot, and I know some of it is because I keep attracting the same type of troublein my life, at that heated or sensitive moment, my pained areas either begin or worsen like a migraine throbs more the more you stress it. I have had to fight the same battles for 10 years now, with added, and I know you are right about all you believe and say because I isolated myself for the past four years, even when i am around others I am the one who observes, thinks, reacts diffrently and I have been told that I broaden others to new understandings and ways of seeing things. I am always putting other before and I do feel like I deserve to be treated the same, but no replies. I am overly-sensitive to pain situations and I am happpy to find out, thanks by the way, that my way of dealing with past trauma is to write about it. I write about the negative past, the transitioning present, in which I am now being forced to make change because of the knowledge I ve gained about self, and the future, well I believe in one, as i ave hardened a little to ones that depended on my servants nature, crippling from finding their own ways. Wheeeewww, I had to get that off my heart because i feel alot better knowing that who I am does not have to be appreciated by other for me to know that my nature is a not only different from most in my surroundings, I am the bright, deep, sensitive, inteleectual I wanted to believe i was and not losing it. Advice will be taken

    GOD BLESS

  2. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Dear Murieal: Thank you for your comments. So… try not to dwell on the past, even by writing about it so much as it only reactivates the nervous system!
    Take care!
    Barbara

  3. Martha says:

    This was fascinating reading. Here’s my story and I think it gives credence to your theory. I grew up in a traumatized family; my dad had MS, my mom was bipolar and an alcoholic as was my younger brother. I often wondered how I, a fairly simple normal person got born into that asylum. I am very empathetic. At an early age I was “given” my little brother. My mom simply meant to fend off any incipient sibling rivalry, but I took her at her word and believed that he was my responsibility. We were very very close growing up (in that mad family, naturally) and as adults I always felt responsible for him.

    He grew into an incorrigible, hardcore alcoholic who lived on and off the streets during most of his life despite being incredibly talented as an artist and cartoonist. Until 2004 (I was 52) I took care of him, sometimes working three jobs to pay for rehab or rent for him. In 2004 I realized it was hopeless, he didn’t know where I lived or anything about me. I told him not to call me again unless he was really sober. He didn’t.

    I then began having intense pain in my hip which was diagnosed as early onset osteoarthritis. I had surgery in 2007. My brother had also had his hips replaced. After that I should have been fine, but I wasn’t. I had periods of greater and lesser mobility and I chalked that up (the pain and limited ability to walk, limited range of motion) to arthritis in other joints from years of running. I went on like that until just two weeks ago when I learned my brother had died. Once I learned how he died and what happened with his remains, and was able to do some positive things on behalf of his memory, I was very suddenly able to walk without problems, even going down stairs which had been excruciating.

    Now I think I have carried my brother around inside me. The pain I felt in my feet, the difficulty walking, the weakness in my knees and the limited range of motion in my hips were all symptoms my brother experienced as a result of drinking and his hip surgeries.

    Thanks for writing this!

    Martha

  4. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Oh Martha! Your life has not been easy but you are indeed a survivor! Many of us think we have been born into an asylum (your words) but don’t come up on top like you have. You didn’t mention if you have fibromyalgia, but I presume you did/do.
    This is such a positive outcome, I hope many readers will find joy in it as I did. You have literally ‘changed your brain’.
    Kind regards, Barbara

  5. iagree says:

    Hi
    Pleased to read this. My Mam suffers from fibromyalgia and I was upset to hear that her rheumatologist told her it would never go away. My frist thought was: if you don’t know what causes it, how can you possibly know it won’t go away?

    The other thing that has annoyed me is the insistence that the disease is not psychosomatic without, as far as I can see, any evidence to prove this. I suffer from psychosomatic problems all the time and I know they’re horrible. It doesn’t mean they’re imagined.

    The other meaning of psychosomatic, by the way, is that the physical symptoms of emotional distress (tense muscles, faster heart beat, higher levels of certain hormones, digestive changes and changes to the metabolism etc) eventually cause damage to the body. Lots of things can happen due to our minds and the way our bodies react to perceived danger (through the fight or flight respoinse). For instance, alopecia (total hair loss) is often psychosomatic.

    Thanks for writing about this. I get annoyed when people dismiss any suggestion it could be psychosomatic, particularly when my mother suffered depression and anxiety for decades before this came on. Surely telling her she can never feel well again is just condemning her to a life of pain!

  6. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Thanks so much for your comments. This kind of issue keeps on repeating itself. I guess I would now suggest we change the term to a ‘personality type’ rather than psychosomatic as the latter implies so much negativity! It will be difficult to prove or disprove, that’s the problem! Very good of you to write on behalf of your mother. Maybe my book would help her put things in perspective? Kind regards, Barbara

  7. Dawn says:

    Probably the best article I have read about fibromyalgia. My story echos that of Martha’s. I was an adopted only child whose mother was obsessive/compulsive. I had a wonderful father but when I was 14 he was diagnosed with Charco-Marie-Tooth disease, a progressive muscle wasting disease, and by the time he died in his 70s he was paralysed from the neck down.

    Married at 19, my second son was born with many problems including a serious heart condition. When my son was 5 years old my husband had his first heart attack. On one occasion my husband and son were both in hospital, in different cities, and I would travel each day to visit both of them My son was 11 years old when he died during heart surgery. My husband went on to have 3 further heart attacks before the last one killed him.

    During the whole of this time I was juggling caring for everyone. My husband was unable to work full time and so I also found a part-time job. I don’t remember feeling any resentment, I just got on with things the best I could.

    At the age of 36, I remarried. A wonderful guy and life was great. What neither of us knew was that my husband was bipolar, something we discovered after a serious breakdown. Since then he has been hospitalised on 3 occasions and is now only able to work part-time. Although fairly stable with the use of Lithium, many other medications he has been persuaded to try have had serious side effects. What interests me is that I didn’t have any symptoms of fibromyalgia until after his first breakdown.

    I have bought and read The Divided Mind by Dr. Sarno. Interesting read but I am sceptical. I don’t know why, because what he writes does make some sense. Two things make me think that Dr. Sarno is on the right track. Firstly, now that I have reached the age of 65, I do find that I resent the past, even the present and worry about the future. Secondly, the first thing I focus on when I get up in the morning is the pain. If I can manage not to focus on the pain (almost impossible) I find that I do have a better day.

  8. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Oh my dear Dawn: Your life story is a very sad one indeed. I hope that you will read my book and continue to read these blogs and that life improves somewhat for you. Sincere best wishes, Barbara

  9. Nasrin Krury says:

    Hi
    I have just come over this blog and have found it so fascinating. I am a FM sufferer and have recently been diagnosed with Rheumatoid arthritis too. I truly believe that my FM was a result of many consecutive series of traumatic events starting from early childhood. I am now 35, a mother to an eight year old daughter and a nine month old son, I am a carer to my mother and sister who suffer from schizophrenia, I also work as a civil servant. As you can imagine, life is nothing but hardship although I do try to keep as positive as possible. I am on medication but the pain/fatigue flares up during stress and physical activity.

    The fascinating thing is that I have now realised when I am extremely sad and overburdened I can feel the pain immensely. With every tear I shed when down and distressed I feel the pain pulsating in different parts of my body, particularly my wrists and finger joints in the recent months.

    I truly believe in the connection between the mind and body and how the interact with one another. I fail to explain to people that although it starts initially from the brain the pain and suffering then becomes real and the it is not in the head.

    Thank you so much for your article. It emphasises exactly what I have learnt from my own experience.

    Nasrin

  10. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Dear Nasrin: Please read my article 04/04/12 and let me know if this applies to you too. As a caregiver most of my life I completely relate to all your experiences.your life is filled with one burden after another. Keep in touch as I know you need support form the comments of others.
    Very best wishes,
    Barbara

  11. Sally says:

    I have come across this blog after a conversation with my 76 year old mother this morning.

    A bit of background….

    After the loss of my 9 year old successful business in 2008, I had moved from 16 miles distant, to 1 mile from my widowed mother. I have coped with my own distress with the loss of my passion and livelyhood ( a casualty of the banking meltdown) and have been on hand for my mother who has a number of mainly age related ailments coupled with lymphodemia in both legs since that time.

    I have 2 sisters, one of whom does a little, the other who does very little for their mother for a number of reasons, probably because I am geographically closer, and inevitably, it always does seem to fall to one.

    The move to our current location (ie a mile from my mother) was always seen as a temporary fix and it was our intention to find somewhere which would lend itself to a good bed and breakfast and would allow me to have an income and social contact. Over the last 4 years, we have looked at, and rejected a number of properties about which we have kept my mother informed.

    The reason for this post, is to say that my mother had the diagnosis of fibromyalgia some time ago but the symptoms seem to have abated whilst I have been at beck and call. Last week we found a fabulous house some 20 miles distant. I told my mother of this find and took her there to look yesterday. Her mobility was extra bad yesterday and this morning, we had arranged for me to take her to a local plant nursery to get bedding plants for her garden. Her phone call was to say that she did not feel up to it as she hurts all over and she stated, it’s as if the fibromylagia has returned.

    Her father, lived till he was 93. I am 51. I potentially have another 20 odd years as her carer. If there is, indeed a psychological element to some of my mother’s discomfort, it is essential we get this sorted, else we all end up suffering from degrees of resentment. I will discuss this with her GP. The purpose of this post is simply to illustrate my agreement of the link of mind and body. When I was reacting to the loss of my business, I was suffering from pains all over my body. As a normally active person, climbing over gates etc became very difficult. I know how it feels.

  12. Nasri Krury says:

    Dear Barbara Keddy

    Thank you so much for your response to my comment. I have only just seen it as I have totally forgotten about writing this post. My mind is failing me and I feel like I float from day to day. I’m in constant pain and fatigue. I have some good days when I am so thankful to God. I truly appreciate the days I feel free of pain, fatigue and restlessness in my mind.

    I will read your other article.

    Thank you again

    Nasrin

  13. Ursula says:

    Dear Barbara Keddy,

    Thank you very much for writing this article. I am aware that it was written a little while back, but maybe someone like me will come across it one day and get as much out of it as what I do including the comments.

    I have to admit, part of me commenting on your article is as well to keep a discussion which I find vital in learning more about Fibromyalgia going.

    I have studied psychoanalysis a few years back and have Fibromyalgia since a long time. my keen interest in the subject was flared up again because right now I am in the middle of separating from my partner whom I had been together with for more then 10 years. And, because I’m currently experiencing an almighty fibroflare.

    I am a keen believer in a mind and body connection and feel, only because I believe Fibromyalgia or a lot of other illnesses having psychosomatic links does not rule out any physiological link.
    Fibromyalgia a lot of times gets Diagnosed by a Rheumatologist. If you take the psychosomatic components of Rheumatology (if indeed you believe in a link) you will find it described as … ” an encounter for example loss of freedom in environment, that produces the same type of limitation in the body. In a way, the body says: look at me, I can do nothing!”.

    My own personal history has been being in some kind of relationships with some kind of abusive history. That does not mean there aren’t any physiological links. My mother has Fibromyalgia so there could be a genetic link. I am convinced neurotransmitters in the brain play a role, hormones… It does get more complex as more one reads and researches.

    My hope and believe is that all these different components of Fibromyalgia will get researched and maybe one day someone will be able to link everything together. Meanwhile it is people like you and your readers who keep the discussion alive urging others not to give up finding a solution to such a painful illness. Thank you.

  14. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Dear Ursula: Thank you for your insightful comments. I appreciate all that you say and agree with you. My own mother was very anxious and prone o panic attacks. I came by them through her mothering and perhaps even genetic. Who can ever tell? The body-mind connection is a strong one. You are right…the bod does reach a point when it says “I can do nothing”. We almost give up and many do while others face the challenge with more strength. It gets worse with aging, I am finding.
    Like you I hope that someday the links will all come together and it will be less of a maze for us to struggle with on a daily basis.
    I hope to hear from you again!
    Best wishes,
    Barbara

  15. Ryan says:

    Barbara

    You are a good women for writing this article. Everyone is scared to admit that there pain is caused by our brains but it’s true. I have used dr sarno work and can tell you it works. I healed from chronic pain along with all kinds of other symptoms, including anxiety. I’m living proof, although the healing process is long. If anyone was diagnosed with fibro please read Dr. SARNOS book and give it a try. It will take time to heal but trust me it works. I was a skeptical at first just like many of you, but I was at wits end. I was willing to try anything. If anyone would like more information about TMS, go to a free website tmswiki.org. also be on the lookout, there will be a documentary on Dr Sarno’s work coming out in about 6 months. It’s called All About the Rage. This could be a big break through for mindbody medicine and chronic pain. It will help get the word out for people who are willing. I’m just trying to help others by spreading the word.

  16. Peggy Jenkins says:

    I have suffered from fibro since a fall in late 2007. I am a RN also and have worked 25 years. Mostly in ICU and trauma. My family suffered a big loss in 2001 with the death of my husband in a car accident. It also injured 3 other members of my family severely. After my fall which fx my T5 vertebrae and herniated 4 more I have not been the same. I am off work for the 3rd time awaiting LTD benefits. It is a struggle but on days that I feel well, I research a cure. I am determined that I will not live my life a victim of a syndrome. I have thought about physchotherapy but am not sure of it’s benefits. I am going to a clinic in a week which deals in mind spirit and body. I pray that this is the answer that I am searching for . If it is not I will keep searching. I hope to find my answer. Sufferers do no not give up. When you have good days search for your own solution. DO NOT GIVE UP.

  17. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Dear Peggy:
    Psychotherapy is an excellent idea, I hope you pursue it! Have you read the blog I wrote on nurses and fibro? it never cesses to amaze me how many nurses have this syndrome! Chronic pain clinics, meditation seminars and workshops, Tai Chi and Chi Gong are all part of the mind/body therapies that can help soothe your hyper-aroused nervous system. Many think yoga is a good practice as well as long as it isn’t too vigorous.
    Keep in touch, regards
    Barbara

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