Research is funny. Often it leaves those of us being researched feeling a little “well duh…” and sometimes we wonder why they had to spend money proving the obvious. This is one of those studies that may leave you feeling that way. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard (or said) that stress impacts the symptoms of Fibromylagia, I’d be rich.
It’s not like there hasn’t been research on the connection between stress and pain, there’s actually been quite a bit. What I did find interesting was that some of that research shows that stress can actually create an analgesic effect in some instances (for example, the person who breaks their arm but doesn’t feel it while they are in the midst of the accident, only to cry out when things have calmed down and they see the bone sticking out). For many people exercise can release this same type of stress-induced analgesia, which is presumed to be caused by the release of endogeneous opioids and growth factors. Of course, we know (and research has confirmed) that this type of exercise-induced analgesia doesn’t work the same in patients with Fibromyalgia. It’s less clear why stress may increase pain in some situations, and especially for those suffering from Fibromyalgia.
There is less research on the effects of relaxation on pain, and the results of said research have been mixed. While some research seems to suggest that cognitive tasks can add to stress (especially for those already feeling foggy) other research suggests that it can act as a distraction from the pain resulting in relaxation. Progressive Relaxation Therapy (PRT) is a relaxation technique that (in theory) allows you to slowly relax all your muscles. Some believe that this relaxation decreases pain by decreasing muscle tightness, others say that it increases pain because you become more aware of your body (I’ve personally experienced both with it).
This study compared 21 Fibromyalgia patients and 22 health controls to compare the effects of PRT and cognitive tasks on pain outcomes. All participants participated in both the PRT and cognitive tasks a week apart. The order of which they did first was selected by random draw.
Temporal Summation, or the increase in pain ratings after the repeated presentation of noxious stimuli was evaluated. Temporal Summation decreased following both the PRT and the cognitive tasks for the healthy individuals; however, TS typically increased following both the PRT and cognitive tasks for those with Fibromylgia.
This is not the first study to show increased pain among those with Fibromylagia following a cognitive stressor, but it is important to see the differences in how we react in comparison to healthy people. It’s also important that it this study shows that something that should be relaxing can actually increase our pain (possibly by making us more aware of it). This study is also important as it shows that what is relaxing to those who are healthy can be a stressor to those who live with Fibromyalgia.