Fibromyalgia is more prevalent among women. The typical fibromyalgia patient is a woman between the ages of 25 to 60. It is ten times more likely that a woman will develop this disease than a man will. There are millions of Americans currently suffering from fibromyalgia – about 3.4% of women have it, compared to the 0.5% of men who have it. That means that about 6 million people in the United States may have it.
Women are documented as having much higher pain responses than men. Studies on newborn babies showcase this distinction, ruling out sociocultural factors and pinning it on physiological factors. Interestingly, pain tolerance is also divided among race lines, with African Americans having lower pain thresholds than Caucasians. If the male-female pain differences transfer, this might indicate that African America women have the greatest instance of fibromyalgia.
One of the suggested causes of fibromyalgia is low levels of serotonin – a neurotransmitter. This would explain why so many more women than men suffer from fibromyalgia; women have approximately seven times less serotonin than men. Women with other female family members suffering from fibromyalgia tend to get fibromyalgia as well – though it’s not clear whether or not that is due to genetic factors or environmental factors. The serotonin connection would also explain the insomnia-fibromyalgia link because serotonin levels drop dramatically when someone is sleep deprived. Other chemical contributors might be involved in developing fibromyalgia – which would explain the oftentimes midlife onset of fibromyalgia in women because at that time women also undergo menopause, a dramatic change in hormones.
The change in chemicals might also be why children who experience fibromyalgia are around puberty age (11-15). Physicians are seeing more and more cases of pediatric fibromyalgia. This may also be contributed to by the increase in stress placed on our children; stress plays a potential role in the development of fibromyalgia.
There is a greater likelihood that someone who already has one of several rheumatic diseases will also develop fibromyalgia. The more likely candidates are people who have rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis (which is arthritis of the spine), and systemic lupus erythematosus (just called lupus for short.)
Because there seems to be some link between traumatic events – whether physical or emotional – someone who goes through a particularly rough time in their life might be more susceptible to developing fibromyalgia as well.
There are also new studies suggesting that there is a certain mechanism in the spinal cord that can send false messages regarding pain to the rest of the body, which would account for the central nervous system misfiring that lead to a person with fibromyalgia interpreting a simple touch as pain. Other studies also indicate that for people with fibromyalgia, during non-painful events there was reduced activation in primary sensory regions in their brains and increased activation in sensory integration areas. This again suggests that fibromyalgia is unpreventable – though we ultimately still don’t know what the central nervous system is behaving in these ways, and there may still be environmental factors at play.
Other researchers, though, support the theory that certain people just have genes that cause them to react more strongly to stimuli that other people, interpreting that stimulus as pain.
Regardless the cause, fibromyalgia is a real, physical condition.