Touch is such a strange thing with Fibromyalgia. Long before I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia I had strange issues with touch. I couldn’t stand to have someone sitting too close to me. I’d feel the pressure from them just being there, and sometimes even from across the room. Clothes felt uncomfortable, a gentle stroke might feel like a slap.
Gabapentin helped turn down the nerves that wouldn’t stop firing. I no longer felt like I was plugged into a wall socket getting a steady stream of energy zapped into me. Even over a decade later with everything else controlled, this is the one Fibromyalgia med that I still take a small amount of just to avoid that feeling.
Even with the meds my perception of touch is very different than it used to be. I either can’t tell that someone is touching me at all (usually when I want to feel them touching me) or it feels like they are using so much pressure they are trying to push through my body. The comfortable happy middle ground is rarely there and it’s frustrating.
A study published in eNeuro (February, 2016) might explain why my touch perception is all messed up. Past research has found that the endogenous opioid system plays a role in how we perceive touch. This same system is linked to the rewarding nature of social relationships. Opioid receptors in the brain are especially concentrated in areas related to pain and emotion. Blocking opioid receptors often results in a negative mood.
This study compared ratings of touch (fast vs slow) in Fibromyalgia patients vs healthy individuals. Additionally, the researchers administered an opioid blocker to half of the participants in each group to determine differences in how fast and slow touch was rated, as well as overall ratings of touch pleasantness both before and after the drug was administered, allowing them to see how opioids affect the overall perception of touch.
While the healthy controls rated a difference between the slow and fast touch, those with Fibromyalgia did not rate them differently. Fibromyalgia patients also didn’t differ in their ratings of pleasantness of touch. Higher depression scores were related to higher ratings of touch pleasantness, while higher anxiety scores were related to higher intensity ratings. Opioid blockers were found to alter pleasantness ratings among the healthy subjects, while altering intensity ratings among those with Fibromyalgia.
Healthy individuals who received the opioid blocker showed a slight increase in pleasantness ratings, but no change to their ratings of intensity. Alternatively, the Fibromyalgia patients who received the opioid blocker showed no differences in ratings of pleasantness from those who did not receive it; however, their ratings of intensity decreased.
So what does it all mean? Fibromyalgia patients have a blunted sense of touch, we get less of a pleasant reaction from typically pleasant touches, and we feel unpleasant touches at a higher intensity. This study tells us something else- that opioid receptors play a role in why we feel these touches differently. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really provide any answers on how to fix the problem.Fibromyalgia blunts our ability to feel pleasant touch. Click To Tweet
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Case, L. K., Čeko, M., Gracely, J. L., Richards, E. A., Olausson, H., & Bushnell, M. C. (2015). Touch perception altered by chronic pain and by opioid blockade. eneuro, 3(1), ENEURO-0138.