According to an article in Medical News Today, about half of a small group of patients with fibromyalgia was found to have damage to nerve fibers in their skin and other evidence of a disease called small-fiber polyneuropathy (SFPN). Unlike fibromyalgia, which has had no known causes and few effective treatments, SFPN has a clear pathology and is known to be caused by specific medical conditions, some of which can be treated and sometimes cured. The study from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers will appear in the journal Pain and has been released online.
“This provides some of the first objective evidence of a mechanism behind some cases of fibromyalgia, and identifying an underlying cause is the first step towards finding better treatments,” says Anne Louise Oaklander, MD, PhD, director of the Nerve Injury Unit in the MGH Department of Neurology and corresponding author of the Pain paper.
The questionnaires, exam assessments, and skin biopsies all found significant levels of neuropathy in the fibromyalgia patients but not in the control group. Of the 27 fibromyalgia patients, 13 had a marked reduction in nerve fiber density, abnormal autonomic function tests or both, indicating the presence of SFPN. Participants who met criteria for SFPN also underwent blood tests for known causes of the disorder, and while none of them had results suggestive of diabetes, a common cause of SFPN, two were found to have hepatitis C virus infection, which can be successfully treated, and more than half had evidence of some type of immune system dysfunction.
“Until now, there has been no good idea about what causes fibromyalgia, but now we have evidence for some but not all patients. Fibromyalgia is too complex for a ‘one size fits all’ explanation,” says Oaklander, an associate professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. “The next step of independent confirmation of our findings from other laboratories is already happening, and we also need to follow those patients who didn’t meet SFPN criteria to see if we can find other causes. Helping any of these people receive definitive diagnoses and better treatment would be a great accomplishment.”