Researchers Discover ‘Brain Signature’ for Fibromyalgia

By Pat Anson, Editor

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have discovered a “brain signature” that identifies fibromyalgia with 93 percent accuracy, a potential breakthrough in the diagnosis and treatment of a chronic pain condition that five million Americans suffer from.

Fibromyalgia is a poorly understood disorder characterized by deep tissue pain, headaches, fatigue, anxiety, depression and insomnia. The cause of fibromyalgia is unknown and there is no universally accepted way to diagnose or treat it.

The CU Boulder researchers used MRI scans to study brain activity in a group of 37 fibromyalgia patients and 35 control patients, who were exposed to a series of painful and non-painful sensations.

The researchers were able to identify three neurological patterns in the brain that correlated with the pain hypersensitivity typically experienced with fibromyalgia.



"The potential for brain measures like the ones we developed here is that they can tell us something about the particular brain abnormalities that drive an individual's suffering. That can help us both recognize fibromyalgia for what it is - a disorder of the central nervous system - and treat it more effectively," said Tor Wager, director of CU Boulder’s Cognitive and Affective Control Laboratory.

If replicated in future studies, the findings could lead to a new method to diagnosis fibromyalgia with MRI brain scans. Patients who suffer from fibromyalgia have long complained that they are not taken seriously and have to visit multiple doctors to get a diagnosis.

"The novelty of this study is that it provides potential neuroimaging-based tools that can be used with new patients to inform about the degree of certain neural pathology underlying their pain symptoms," said Marina López-Solà, a post-doctoral researcher at CU Boulder and lead author of a study published in the journal Pain. "This is a helpful first step that builds off of other important previous work and is a natural step in the evolution of our understanding of fibromyalgia as a brain disorder."

One patient advocate calls the use of MRI brain scans a breakthrough in fibromyalgia research.

"New cutting-edge neurological imaging used by CU Boulder researchers advances fibromyalgia research by light years," said Jan Chambers, founder of the National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association. "It allows scientists to see in real time what is happening in the brains of people with fibromyalgia. 

"In fibromyalgia, the misfiring and irregular engagement of different parts of the brain to process normal sensory stimuli like light, sound, pressure, temperature and odor, results in pain, flu-like sensations or other symptoms.  Research also shows that irregular activity in the peripheral nervous system may be ramping up the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).  So the effect is like a loop of maladjustment going back and forth while the brain is trying to find a balance.  This extra brain work can be exhausting." 

The theory that fibromyalgia is a neurological disorder in the brain is not accepted by all. Other experts contend it is an autoimmune disorder or even a “symptom cluster” caused by multiple chronic pain conditions. And some doctors still refuse to accept fibromyalgia as a disease.

One company has already developed a diagnostic test for fibromyalgia – and it’s not a brain scan. EpicGenetics has a blood test that looks for protein molecules produced by white blood cells. Fibromyalgia patients have fewer of these molecules than healthy people and have weaker immune systems, according to the founder of EpicGenetics. But critics have called the blood test “junk science” that is backed up by little research.

Imaging Identified as Most Wasteful Medical Test

By Pat Anson, Editor

Should you get an MRI for your headache?

What about a CT scan for low back pain?

Or a bone-density scan for someone under the age of 65?

In most cases, the answer to all of those questions is no, according to the Choosing Wisely campaign of the ABIM Foundation, which seeks to reduce the use of hundreds of unnecessary and costly medical tests. Experts say an MRI or CT scan of the lower back can cost over $1,200 and does nothing to relieve your back pain.

Since Choosing Wisely was launched in 2012, over 370 wasteful procedures have been identified by over 70 medical societies, such as the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the American Academy of Neurological Surgeons. Each organization was asked to identify an initial list of five medical services that may be unnecessary. Many societies went far beyond that, returning with two or even three lists.

A neurologist at the University of Michigan says the list of recommendations from the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) only scratches the surface. Brian Callaghan, MD, has identified 74 tests and procedures related to neurology that are often unnecessary. Many involve the use of imaging.

“The two biggest areas that might be done more than they should are imaging for low back pain and imaging for headaches,” Callaghan said. “It’s a big problem and it costs a lot of money – we’re talking a billion dollars a year on just headache imaging.”

According to a recent study at the University of Michigan, one in eight visits to a doctor for a headache or migraine end up with the patient going for a brain scan. Often a doctor will order a CT or MRI scan to ease a patient’s fear that they may have a brain tumor or some other serious issue causing their pain. Physicians could also order a scan to protect themselves legally in case of a future lawsuit.

In most cases, however, the brain scan will be useless. Previous research found that only 1 to 3 percent of brain scans of patients with repeated headaches identify a cancerous growth or aneurysm that's causing the problem. Many of the issues that a scan might identify don’t pose a serious threat or may not require treatment right away. There is also the risk of a false positive that could generate unnecessary fear and alarm.

“These are all areas where lots of physicians agree that you’re more likely to get harmed by doing the procedures,” said Callaghan, whose study was recently published in the journal Neurology.

Callaghan isn’t encouraging you to say no if your doctor wants to image your brain or lower back, but he hopes his research will inspire a thoughtful discussion between doctors and patients about the purpose of the test and its value

“Ordering an MRI for a headache is very quick, and it actually takes longer to describe to the patient why that’s not the best route,” Callaghan said. “These guidelines are meant for physicians and patients both, to trigger a conversation.”

Besides imaging, another treatment that is widely questioned is the use of opioid pain medication to treat headaches and migraine. The Choosing Wisely campaign recommends that opioids only be used as a last resort for severe headaches, including migraine. Overuse of any pain reliever – even over-the-counter medications -- are known to make headaches worse.