Have you heard about a connection between fibromyalgia & trauma?
Upwards of 90% of women suffering from fibromyalgia also report experiencing trauma. It is believed the stress response, activated by trauma (especially childhood trauma) can become hyper vigilant. The overly sensitive stress response, combined with preconditioned neurological reactions, produce an exaggerated response to normal stimuli. For example, clothing rubbing on skin may produce a painful response.
*Please be warned that if you are very distressed because of trauma you may not want to delve into the detail in this blog and we suggest you seek professional support. However, if you have an inkling this may be a link to your pain, we hope you find this blog informative and helpful.
Maybe you have heard of the link between fibromyalgia and trauma – but you don’t like it.
You wouldn’t be alone.
Many people resist (or outright reject) the idea that fibromyalgia is linked to trauma.
Because they are insulted. They believe that a theory linking trauma & pain implies that the ‘pain is all in their head’.
Let me be very clear from the outset…
Your pain is not all in your head!! Your pain is very real!
Your pain is as real as the pain from burning your hand on a kettle.
The brain and nervous system are wonderful – but tricky.
A perfect example is phantom limb pain. The pain experienced in the missing limb is no less real than the pain of shrapnel in the leg.
So let’s not let a miscommunication around the mind/body connection stand in the way of healing.
The numbers linking fibromyalgia and trauma are shocking.
Upwards of 90% of women suffering from fibromyalgia also report experiencing trauma.
As a comparison 90% is way higher than the average woman. Between 19-32% of females report some form of trauma. The numbers vary depending on the form of trauma.
It is pretty clear from the statistics that there is some kind of link between fibromyalgia & trauma…
So let’s dig a little deeper and find out what that connection is….
and more importantly what you can do to heal from trauma.
What is Fibromyalgia?
Do you have widespread pain in your joints & muscles and constant fatigue?
Fibromyalgia is a mysterious & debilitating disease. It causes pain, fatigue & tenderness throughout your body.
Fibromyalgia is the second most common condition affecting the bones & muscles.
It is suspected that more than 5 million Americans suffer from fibromyalgia. 80 – 90 percent of those diagnosed are women.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition & although it affects such an enormous number of people worldwide – it is often misdiagnosed.
There are however tell-tale signs you have fibromyalgia including:
- Painful / aching muscles
- Fuzzy head (known as ‘fibro fog’)
- Feeling anxious, nervous or worried
For a full rundown of the tell-tale signs of fibromyalgia check this out.
Doctors don’t know what causes fibromyalgia but researchers have identified a number of risk factors. These risk factors may contribute to a ‘perfect storm’ leading to fibromyalgia.
These factors include:
- Genetics – fibromyalgia often runs in families. If you have family members with fibromyalgia – you have a greater chance of developing it yourself.
- Other rheumatic conditions – prior illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or ankylosing spondylitis are linked to fibromyalgia.
- Stress – Prolonged periods of stress lead to hormonal disturbances. This hormonal imbalance is thought to contribute to the onset of fibromyalgia
- Being a woman – according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, women are 8 to 9 times more likely to have fibromyalgia than men. Scientists believe this is in part because of the female reproductive hormones, oestrogen. Menopause is another risk factor due to the lowered levels of oestrogen.
- Age – Most people with fibromyalgia are between 20 to 50 years old according to the National Fibromyalgia Association.
- Sleep disorders – People with sleep disorders such as sleep apnoea & restless leg syndrome are more likely to suffer from fibromyalgia. It is not known if the sleep disorders are a symptom or a cause of fibromyalgia
- Mental health conditions – Fibromyalgia is closely linked to mood disorders. Depression and anxiety stem from the same chemical imbalances as fibromyalgia. The stresses of life with chronic pain cause mental turmoil, which can lead to depression or anxiety
- Trauma – fibromyalgia is more prevalent in people who have lived through trauma. It is also linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
What is Trauma?
Trauma is a physiological response to an incredibly distressing or disturbing event.
Trauma can be caused through:
- Physical events (such as serious injury or acute bout of illness)
- Emotional events (such as death of a loved one)
- Social events (such as political problems or war)
A traumatic event might touch all three areas. Examples include:
- Violent assaults (sexual or physical assault)
- Domestic violence
- Severe car accidents
- Natural disasters (bushfire, earthquakes or floods)
- Fleeing your home as a refugee
Everybody responds to a traumatic event differently. And the same person can respond to separate traumatic responses differently.
Some people may respond to trauma with an acute stress reaction. Acute stress reactions begin quickly and disappear within days, weeks or months.
Signs of an Acute Stress Response
Signs of an acute stress response include:
- Feeling ‘dazed’ initially
- Being hyper–active or agitated
- Withdrawing from normal activities (like work or social situations)
- Feeling anxious
- Thinking only about the traumatic event
- Feeling lost or ‘out of sorts’
- Feeling depressed
- Difficulty remembering
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Another normal response to trauma is PTSD, which is a long-lasting anxiety response.
PTSD may not occur immediately after the traumatic event. It usually develops within six months. PTSD is more common than you may realise with almost 4% of adults being diagnosed with PTSD in a given year.
Common Signs of Trauma
It is very normal to continue to have distressing thoughts and feelings after a traumatic event. This is your body recovering from a severe stress.
Common reactions to trauma include:
- Anxiety at being left alone, in a frightening situation or the same event happening again
- Fear of yourself or you loved ones being in danger
- Avoiding situations and thoughts that remind you of the trauma
- Being easily startled by loud noises or sudden movements
- Sudden flashbacks where images of the traumatic event come into your mind Mentally re-living the event
- Tense muscles, trembling, nausea, headaches, sweating, and tiredness
- Lack of interest in usual activities, including loss of appetite or no interest in sex
- Feeling, lost, sad or alone
- Problems sleeping or dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event
- Problems concentrating and remembering (especially details of the traumatic event)
- Preoccupation with thinking about the trauma.
- Feeling guilty or doubting yourself for the way you acted during the traumatic event
- Feeling guilty for being better off than others or responsible for another person’s death or injury
- Anger or irritability at what has happened
- Asking “Why me?”
Everybody’s response to trauma is different. Some people may experience problems directly after the event. For others problems may develop later on.
Most people recover well with a good support network of family and friends.
Unfortunately, some people suffer long-term problems afterwards.
Fibromyalgia may be one of the long-term problems experienced after trauma.
Why is childhood trauma so significant?
We now know that if you experience childhood trauma it can have major implications for your health as an adult.
As a child our central nervous systems are rapidly developing.
Every experience from the taste of a cake, or a bird singing, to a hug from mum is creating new pathways to the brain.
The creation of new pathways in the nervous system to the brain is called neuroplasticity.
We can use neuroplasticity at any stage of life to form new pathways. Like learning to drive a car or the steps to a waltz.
We can also use neuroplasticity to heal – find out more here.
But a child’s growing brain is incredibly good at building new pathways in response to each stimulus.
In response to a happy experience – like cuddles with mum, the nervous system creates pathways to the brain to respond pleasurably.
In the case of frightening experiences the nervous system creates pathways that respond to the fear – by starting a stress response.
Stress is a whole of body experience. Stress begins a cascade of hormones (such as cortisol or adrenaline). These hormones prompt neurological and physical responses.
Stress puts you into ‘fight or flight’ mode.
Fight or flight mode raises your heart rate, tenses your muscles – gets you set to…run or fight.
In the case of long term or extreme trauma those pathways in the nervous system become strong and well-established.
The stress response becomes easily activate – often inappropriately.
An over-active stress response as a child can affect the development of the brain & nervous system. This may negatively impact your health long-term.
The chronic activation of stress hormones weakens the immune system, gut, energy levels and pain pathways.
Long-term exposure to stress hormones has been linked to many diseases including:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Chronic fatigue
Some of the most common traumatic experiences in childhood include:
- Physical or sexual abuse
- A parent with drug or alcohol abuse
- A parent with mental health problems
- A parent who served time in prison
- Domestic violence
If you experienced any of the above as a child – it is probably affecting your health today.
The below TED talk by Dr Nadine Burke Harris is a great explanation of childhood trauma and adult health.
Fibromyalgia & Trauma – What’s the Connection?
The link between childhood trauma & adult health is now widely accepted.
So what is the link between fibromyalgia & trauma?
One study looked at over 385 people over the age of 60 years, diagnosed with fibromyalgia. The results were shocking:
- Over 70% of women and 67% of men had experienced trauma.
- Over 50% of women and 60% of men experienced abuse or neglect.
- Over 54% of people had experienced physical abuse.
- Almost 50% of women had experienced sexual assault.
So if we agree fibromyalgia & trauma are linked – why? What is happening inside your body?
Another study looked at the nervous system, physical function and body chemistry of fibromyalgia patients. These studies revealed
- Brain imaging scans showed enhanced pain related activation in the brain
- A pain pathway within the nervous system, was compromised (the Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control (DNIC) or conditioned pain modulation (CPM))
- Abnormalities in certain neurotransmitter systems (dopaminergic, opioidergic, and serotoninergic systems)
- Structural differences between the brains of healthy people & fibromyalgia sufferers
The similarities with other stress related diseases such as PTSD and IBS, suggests the underlying cause was stress. This is supported by the fact fibromyalgia and stress related conditions often occur together.
The study concluded that fibromyalgia was most likely a result of childhood trauma or severe prolonged stress
12 Tips to Heal Trauma
If you were one of the (many) unlucky ones to suffer from trauma – don’t despair!
There are many simple and practical steps you can take to heal your trauma.
We run through 12 tips to heal trauma:
- Forgive yourself – Recognise that you have been through a traumatic event and give yourself time to experience a reaction to it. It is ok to be distressed, anxious or scared. Don’t be angry with yourself for being upset.
- You can cope – Remind yourself that you are not ‘abnormal’. Everything you are experiencing is a normal reaction to trauma. You can and are coping.!
- Don’t self-medicate – Avoid the overuse of drugs or alcohol to cope
- Don’t block it – Don’t try to block out thoughts of what happened. Gradually confronting these memories will assist you in healing from the trauma.
- Share your experience – You may feel uncomfortable talking to others about your traumatic experience. Still try to talk it through with people you trust. Bottling things up never helped anyone.
- Don’t avoid places – Don’t unnecessarily avoid certain places or activities linked to the trauma
- Express yourself – Express your feelings as they arise. It can be incredibly healing to write your feelings down in a diary
- Don’t blur the bad – If you experience a new traumatic event it may well stir up memories or feelings from an unrelated event in the past. Try not to let all the memories blur together. Keep memories separate and try to deal with them separately
- Relax – Make time for yourself to just relax. Try formal techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation. Alternatively, try relaxing activities like gardening, yoga or listening to music. This will help your mind and body to heal.
- Meditate – Meditation or mindfulness is incredibly powerful to calm an anxious mind and an overly sensitive nervous system. Download our free guided meditation here.
- Arm yourself – A trades person would never tackle a job without tools. Arm yourself with tools and strategies to overcome trauma and heal your body, mind and social-well-being. Find out more here.
- Talk to a Professional – Don’t do it alone. If you are really struggling – talk to your doctor or a qualified therapist. Many people find talking it through with a professional incredibly helpful. Your doctor may also suggest some prescription medication such as anti-depressants.
Give yourself the time to heal from trauma. It will not only improve your emotional outlook but also improve your symptoms of fibromyalgia.
There is a very clear link between fibromyalgia and trauma.
Up to 90% of women suffering from fibromyalgia report experiencing trauma. This is significantly higher than the average population.
Traumatic events come in many forms such as sexual assault, domestic violence or natural disasters.
After a traumatic experience the stress response is kicked into over drive. This overly-sensitive stress response can flood your body with stress hormones and create new pathways through the nervous system.
Extreme trauma or prolonged stress can cause physiological changes, which can negatively impact your health long term.
Childhood trauma can have a particularly damaging effect on your health as an adult.
Scientists have found differences in the nervous system, physical function and body chemistry of fibromyalgia sufferers.
The science suggests the physiological differences in fibromyalgia sufferers are most likely the result of trauma or severe prolonged stress.
There are simple and effective steps you can take to heal from trauma.
Forgive yourself, share with others and acknowledge what you have been through.
You are experiencing a normal response to trauma. You can and are coping!
Make time for relaxation, try meditation and arm yourself with strategies to recover.
Avoid using drugs and alcohol to cope.
Remember you are never alone! You should always talk to your doctor if you are struggling.
Taking steps to recover from trauma won’t just make you feel better. It will also go a long way to healing your fibromyalgia.
Have you experienced trauma?