The Arthritis Foundation estimates that right now, a little less than 4 million Americans, mainly women, live with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that doesn't have many effective treatments. Despite more awareness of the condition after Lady Gaga revealed she lives with it in her documentary Five Foot Two, there's less research than there needs to be around fibromyalgia. A new study, however, may have pinpointed a potential new treatment for fibromyalgia.
Researchers know that fibromyalgia can emerge after a single traumatic event, but that it can also appear over time without any apparent cause. There have been several theories about fibromyalgia's emergence, including that it's something to do with the body's hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which combines the nervous and endocrine systems and regulates how we respond to stress. However, the new study has a different idea. It tracked insulin resistance in people with fibromyalgia, and argued that there might be a connection between the two.
Insulin resistance is a condition where cells in the body stop responding appropriately to insulin, a hormone that helps your body metabolize blood sugar. If your body is resistant to insulin, blood sugar can build up, which can cause you to pee a lot, feel very thirsty, have headaches, blurred vision, or fatigue, according to the Mayo Clinic.
It turns out that this might also affect fibromyalgia, according to the new study. The study had two parts. First, the scientists showed that people with fibromyalgia in a general group that experienced musculo-skeletal pain could actually be identified pretty easily using a test for insulin resistance. They used a test of their glycated hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) levels, which measures average blood sugar, cross-referenced it with patient ages, and found that people with fibromyalgia had levels corresponding to insulin resistance. As there's no single lab test right now that confirms a fibromyalgia diagnosis, this is a helpful possibility for people who still need to be diagnosed.
The second part of the study is what's got people excited: when the scientists treated the most insulin-resistant fibromyalgia patients in their trial with metformin, a standard drug used for treating insulin resistance, their pain levels went down. The scientists called the drop in pain "dramatic."
"Earlier studies discovered that insulin resistance causes dysfunction within the brain's small blood vessels. Since this issue is also present in fibromyalgia, we investigated whether insulin resistance is the missing link in this disorder," lead scientist Dr. Miguel Pappolla of the University of Texas said in a press release. Their results indicate that, at least right now, their thesis was right.
There are a number of caveats to make here. This is a preliminary study using only a small number of fibromyalgia patients, so it's not clear if insulin resistance tests and metformin treatment would work for every person with fibromyalgia, or what exactly the relationship between insulin resistance and fibromyalgia is. More research needs to be done, but in the meantime, these results offer some hope for people looking for relief from chronic pain.