Linking together the causes of fibromyalgia: “Central Sensitization”

“The amygdala in the emotional center sees and hears everything that occurs to us instantaneously and is the trigger point for the fight or flight response “, Daniel Goleman.

Many years ago I had hoped that it wouldn’t take long before most would finally give up searching for viral/bacterial/hormonal or other CAUSES of fibromyalgia and agree with my theory that this demon is caused by a hyper-aroused nervous system in highly sensitive anxious persons! My book was the first to write about that and now I find that in the magazine Psychology Today , August 2011, an article written by Andrea Bartz, suggests that as well!

I have laid out these ideas as: fibromyalgia= highly sensitive persons who have had acute or chronic trauma in their lives (psychological and/or physical) and have developed a hyperaroused nervous system, chronic anxiety, and an amygdala that is hyper-responsive to fight or flight tendencies. This is called central sensitization, that is, being hypersensitive to sounds, stress, weather changes, light and many other conditions that can affect the nervous system and which develops slowly over time.

What has not yet been documented by many is why it is perceived to be more prevalent in women, or at least why it is reported more frequently by them. I developed this theory further than what I have just cited and suggest that because the majority of women in society are generally the caregivers of others and have developed highly intuitive, empathetic personality traits, they are more prone to a predisposition to fibromyalgia if they are overly empathetic. But, this is somewhat simplistic view as many men are also highly sensitive, and the relatively recent documentation of men suffering from PTSD is now gaining more credibility. All people who are  highly sensitive persons and are overly empathetic /overly compassionate, and  suffer greatly from chronic anxiety are prone to fibromyalgia. I realize that there are many men with fibromyalgia who also are HSPs.

As roles change somewhat in society and more HSP men become highly empathetic caregivers it may be that fibromyalgia will have been under reported in men in the past. Not all caregivers are overly empathetic, but interestingly, in the hundreds of people I have interviewed either formally or informally, I have found nurses and social workers to have a high rate of fibromyalgia, particularly if they themselves have experienced severe trauma in their own lives. The key is not female vs males, but rather certain personality traits set up conditions which often result in fibromyalgia. Interestingly, I read recently that children who had a mother who was depressive had a larger amygdala than the usual size of the amygdala. Could it be that these children were raised in a somewhat unstable home situation, always on the alert, always anxious? Too early to even speculate about these new findings in the research. Even more dangerous is the idea that the  mother is responsible for one more bad thing in a person’s life! Mother blaming has been far too common in the past.

I have one major differing theory about HSPs than the psychologist, Elaine Aron and the article written by  Bartz: I do not believe that we are necessarily born with the tendency, but that it is primarily socially induced. However, neither the psychologists nor I, the sociologist, can prove this point and I am not sure it needs validation. More to the point, there is the possibility of changing the brain and to establish new pathways. Living as an HSP may be appreciating that it can be  a gift, but it can also be a burden. There are numerous strategies  I have described elsewhere and it is too bad that those who write about HSPs do not focus on them in order to make our lives less prone to intense sensitivity.

20 thoughts on “Linking together the causes of fibromyalgia: “Central Sensitization”

  1. Sally Broster

    Dear Dr Keddy,

    I have recently been searching for an answer to my fibromyalgia flares. Of course my doctor’s response is “what did you do this time?” which drives me crazy – I have a life to live and he is wanting to reduce me to a vegetable in the bed.

    So after an especially painful week, I sat down today and quietly asked God to take the pain away from me.

    Then I decided to search for Fibromyalgia blogs and was lead to yours. By this time my pain was lessening and I could lift my arms.

    Being a nurse of 35 yrs myself, I was intrigued by the heading and suddenly was deep into the article. The nurse next to me became interested and we had a great discussion.

    What I have been searching for is a REASON that I can understand – not a CURE.

    You have made my day and you have now recruited a devoted blog follower.


  2. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Thank you so much, Sally. I hope that when you buy my book you will understand even more about the underlying causes of fibromyalgia. It doesn’t surprise me that you are a nurse, in fact, I suspect there is a higher incidence of fibromyalgia among nurses than the general population. It’s all about over caring and highly sensitive people! Keep in touch, Regards, Barbara

  3. Kim

    This is great insight. I was DX with Fibro 4 years ago, and I noticed a trend in people I was meeting with FMS pretty quickly…that they were highly sensitive, empaths, and ‘intiutive’ types. (Even the men that I knew who had the condition were prone to ‘knowing’ things before they happened, ‘feeling’ someone’s mood as soon as they walked into the room, etc.) Will be interesting to see what the Mayo Clinic’s study on the Amygdala Retraining Program show when the study concludes in Jan. 2012. BTW…I was also a nurse about 20 years ago! 🙂

  4. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Thanks Kim: I too will be interested in the Mayo study. Certainly I have been advocating the slight movement approach and mindfulness meditation for a long time as the Mayo study is doing. The neurolinguistics approach is another way of changing brain pathways with the language we use with ourselves every day. With this combination of 3 the study should prove to be very successful with fibromyalgia! It all takes discipline. Take care and thanks for the comments! Kind regards, Barbara

  5. Ethelyn

    This is great insight. I was DX with Fibro 4 years ago, and I noticed a trend in people I was meeting with FMS pretty quickly…that they were highly sensitive, empaths, and ‘intiutive’ types. (Even the men that I knew who had the condition were prone to ‘knowing’ things before they happened, ‘feeling’ someone’s mood as soon as they walked into the room, etc.) Will be interesting to see what the Mayo Clinic’s study on the Amygdala Retraining Program show when the study concludes in Jan. 2012. BTW…I was also a nurse about 20 years ago!

  6. Cam

    I’m so excited to find your website. I am in total agreement concerning the sensitivity issues related to fibro. I was always an over-sensitive child. My third marriage in my early 30’s was a total nightmare for 11 years. I loved and lived with an extremely emotionally abusive man. I worked nights as an RN for 23 years in several step-down units, and lastly, at a long-term acute care facility. I had many total care patients and it was hard physically. My fibromyalgia began along with my rough marriage. However,after my husband left me 5 years ago my pain became unbearable and I thought I had cancer. I began to see many different doctors during the course of over a year. Finally, someone agreed to do the X-ray and MRI I had been begging for. It was found I had a ruptured disk that had ground down to nothing, my doctor said it had probably taken 2 years to get that bad. I had a spinal fusion. I lost my job. My husband would have nothing to do with me. I was accepted for Social Security disability, but now, for the second time, my long-term disability is saying I can work, I am having to hire a lawyer, I was under surveillence for 6 days (they saw me take the dogs in the yard, dressed in PJ’s). My pain is horrible, in my back and plus my fibro… I want to end my life so bad! Aside from the struggle of constant pain and fatigue, of course I am extremely depressed. I wonder how I haven’t had a heart attack or stroke. How can a society be so callous? I was going to therapy, but now will no longer have the money for that or my Cymbalta. I am literally at the end of it all. My doctor is supportive, but seems powerless to help me with the insurance company. I have literally done nothing but fight every step of the way these last 5 years. Hell cannot be much worse. I am so sorry to unload all of this here. I just want someone to help and feel I have no one. I take pain meds, sleep, eat, and wonder how long I’ll have to be tortured to death. That is all. So sorry.

  7. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Oh Cam. Yours is such a sad story and not unlike that of many others. All I can say is to practice meditation with consistency and try gradual movement. These are the only solutions as medications can become very overwhelming with few good results. It doesn’t surprise me that you are a nurse. I hope you can read my book to get a better understanding of the issues involved with care giving. Best wishes, Barbara

  8. Dawn

    Cam, after reading your comment I find myself wondering about you and how you’re doing almost a month later. I have felt the despair and desperation the fibromyalgia brings and know all too well the seemingly endless darkness you find yourself in. But I have made the CHOICE to fight. I say choice because it’s not something that comes automatically or easily. My sincere hopes are that you will find that kernel of strength that is buried deep within you…that you will nurture it until it blossoms into the will and desire to accept and overcome the obstacles that have been laid before you.

  9. Keely Stefan

    Reading your post and the replies tears come streaming as for the first time I see there are others like me. Those overly sensitive and able to sense others emotions. I’m not a nurse , but I’ve been divorced twice, a bipolar dru addicted daughter etc etc etc. thank you all and god bless

  10. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Dear Keely: There are so many people who are highly sensitive and in particular as the social and economic chaos in the world continues more and more of us are affected. Please read the rest of my 90 blogs and know you are not alone in this quest for a better life.

  11. Elaine

    I did not have fibromyalgia symptoms until after a terrible viral infection in 2004. It was so bad, it caused me to faint the one and only time in my life. Shortly after, began the difficulty falling/staying asleep, weight fluctuations, depression, irritable bowel, and the sensation that patches of my skin were were frozen and on fire at the same time. My doctor was treating me for Chronic Fatigue and Irritable Bowel when I realized I hadn’t dreamed in over 2 years.

    Then I had my babies and I pissed the fibro monster off. I have been flaring almost non-stop since I conceived last, over a year ago. (With my 1st, though, my symptoms were non-existant. I was looking forward to the relief I though pregnancy might bring. I never want to be pregnant again.)

    I was never a highly sensitive person before the fibro, only after. I slept through a hurricane as a child. Noises didn’t bother me. My only health problems were a bad set of tonsils and, later, a bad set of wisdom teeth.

  12. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Dear Elaine: I would like to kow you better to find out if you were indeed a sensitive child. I question that you just became one in your adult life, but then we know so little about how the brain shifts from one pattern to another with fibromyalgia that anything is possible. I found your comments to be quite interesting. I hope to maintain contact with you! Very best wishes, Barbara

  13. Maureen

    Dear All: I am in tears tonight. I was diagnosed with fibro 10 years ago, but have only recently started taking medication. I just did not want to hear this diagnosis. Denial was my friend. I am a nurse (hospice and oncology in the past) and could not accept this – what’s the cause? I am extremely empathic – even a little psychic. I feel other’s pain too deeply. I have a history of PTSD from childhood trauma/abuse. I too have spinal problems – non-existent disc space in my cervical and lumbar spine. I’m wondering if I’m going to be able to be ‘functional’ in the near future. Neurontin and now Cymbalta are just barely enough to get me out of bed and to work. This is a terrible existence, but it could always be worse. My wonderful rheumatologist tells me to “Stay Strong” and “Don’t Give Up.” So I offer this encouragement to all of you. One day at a time, one small movement at a time. It helps me to remain grateful for the little and big things in life and in the moment. I know it might sound trite, but it does seem to help me. All of my pain becomes worse as I pay attention to it, speak its name out loud. Believe me, I’ve lain awake in bed thinking I MUST have bone cancer and be dying. The pain without explanation or relief is exhausting. We just have to keep fighting it back. I’ll be back to read more of this blog, and hope you all have a day soon that’s free from pain.

  14. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Dear Maureen: Your comments led me to tears. It is written with such passion and angst. You have touched a chord in all of us. Thanks you so much for your thoughtful and yet hopeful letter to us all.

  15. Sherrie

    This all makes perfect sense to me. I do think that I may have been genetically predisposed to having this since my Grandma likely had it – she was also one to look after everyone but herself. I am a HSP and my Myer Briggs test said I was an INFJ. I was the little girl who brought the stray animals home and cried at sad movies. I grew up in a home with a very high strung mother who blamed me for anything she didn’t approve of, and was bullied also by a sibling. I was always ‘on alert’ and find it hard to relax in a public setting. I developed fibromyalgia as a child and had to put up with the usual – teachers who thought I was trying to get out of sports, and doctors who thought that either I, or my mother, was trying to get attention. I became the ‘family manager’ by the time I was a preteen, and am now the family caregiver since – you know, I’m ‘sick’ and the one who ‘has the time’ to look after others. It never occurs to them that the care giving is more than I can handle and my health has really suffered. Right now I am having symptoms of adrenal burnout and the fatigue is terrible. Unfortunately I seem to have problems with many of the drugs that are given for Fibro, so I just take supplements.
    The worst thing about the disease is isolation and watching others live their lives and do things you wish you could do.
    I enjoy your website and thank you for taking the time to educate and make us feel like we are not alone in this.

  16. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Thank you Sherrie:
    Phew! Your story is so familiar to many of the comments I receive. Caregiving is a terrible strain. My own mother died last July and I am still feeling the fatigue from the years of attending to her. Like you I am always ‘on alert’ but working on Mindfulness Meditation to help with that. Hyper vigilance is difficult to overcome. You are certainly not alone,

  17. Carrie

    I found this article very interesting. I have fibromyalgia, dystonia and am a HSP. My parents always told me I was too sensitive and I was an oddity in my family of 8. If you are into the MBTI personality, I am an INFJ. Introverted intuitive is my 1st function. I feel others moods and feelings immediately as they enter my vicinity, it can be very overwhelming. I remember knowing the intentions, and emotions of complete strangers even as a child. Yet growing up I was not equipped for the task of living the life of an empath. I believe our fast pace culture doesn’t recognize those of us who are a bit different from the main stream. Our task is to learn how to change the minds of those who don’t understand our unique blend of mind/body connection. Maybe if we felt more accepted for our uniqueness we would learn to relax and meditate on the positive things about ourselves and have no need to berate ourselves for being different.

  18. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Dear Carrie:
    Like so many other HSP you too are feeling the effects of your hyper-empathetic and intuitive personality. It is no surprise you have fibromyalgia. I suspect many highly sensitive persons berate ourselves for not fitting the image that is required of mainstream. It is rue we have to accept ourselves for what we are and have compassion for our uniqueness.
    Best wishes,

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