Fibromyalgia (FM) is a chronic pain condition primarily characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain. Other symptoms include stiffness, soft tissue tenderness, fatigue, sleep disturbances, cognitive difficulty, and mood disturbance. The condition is more common among women than men and the prevalence of the disease increases with age. Despite everything we know about FM, the etiology of the disease is still uncertain. What makes a person likely to develop fibromyalgia? And can steps be taken to prevent the onset of the syndrome? Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology sought to answer these very questions by focusing their attention on physical activity and obesity.
It is a well-known fact that regular physical exercise helps to prevent the onset of many chronic conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. When it comes to musculoskeletal pain, regular physical exercise may be able to prevent neck, shoulder, and back pain, as well as stiffness and pain in the joints. However, there are no large scale studies looking at the preventative powers of exercise on FM. Additionally, it is thought that maintaining a normal body mass index (BMI) might also have a preventative effect on pain, and a high BMI has been associated with higher occurrence of musculoskeletal pain. For these reasons, Norwegian researchers wanted to see if there was an inverse relationship between the amount of physical exercise a person does and the development of FM in a large population. The researchers also looked at whether a high BMI, or being overweight/obese, is a risk factor for the development of FM.
Over the course of 11 years, data was collected from almost 16,000 women. The study had two data collection phases; the first part of the study was conducted between 1984 and 1986, with the second part being conducted from 1995 to 1997. During that time, women were asked about their physical activity, BMI, and their pain. In the 11 years between the two phases, 380 of the women reported having been diagnosed with FM. From this study, it was found that women who are overweight/obese are at a higher risk of developing FM, especially if they do not exercise regularly. When compared to women with normal BMIs, women with BMIs greater than 25 had a 60% to 70% higher chance of developing FM. Also, compared to inactive individuals, women who reported exercising 4 or more times per week have a 29% lower risk of developing FM.
In conclusion, this study shows that a high BMI is a strong risk factor for the future development of FM and that regular physical activity serves as a preventative tool against FM. With this information in mind, the next step would be to find out why women with higher BMIs are more likely to have FM. One possibility is the presence of proinflammatory factors in both FM patients and obese subjects. Both patient populations have also been found to have abnormal hormone regulation. Whatever the cause might be, one this is clear: it is important to maintain a normal body weight in order to prevent the onset of FM.
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Meriem Mokhtech, BS
Senior Laboratory Technician
UF Center for Musculoskeletal Pain Research
- Mork PJ, Vasseljen O, Nilsen TIL. The association between physical exercise, body mass index, and risk of fibromyalgia: Longitudinal data from the Norwegian HUNT study (2010). Arthritis Care & Research.