Fibromyalgia – a long-term condition that causes extreme fatigue and pain all over the body – is a disease of the immune system rather than the currently held view that it originates in the brain, scientists have said.
New research by UK scientists suggests that many of the symptoms in fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) are caused by antibodies that increase the activity of pain-sensing nerves throughout the body.
The findings, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, were based on mice so experts say further research is needed.
But Dr Andreas Goebel, from the University of Liverpool, who is the study’s principle clinical investigator, said their work offers “amazing hope that the invisible, devastating symptoms of fibromyalgia will become treatable”.
Around two million people in the UK suffer with fibromyalgia.
Although it affects people of all ages, those aged between 30 to 50, and women, are much more likely to develop the condition.
As its causes are unknown, fibromyalgia is a particularly difficult condition to diagnose.
Symptoms include pain all over the body, fatigue, disturbed sleep and regular flare-ups where symptoms can get worse.
As part of the study, the researchers injected mice with antibodies from people living with fibromyalgia.
The rodents were found to rapidly develop an increased sensitivity to pressure and cold, as well as displayed reduced movement and grip strength.
In contrast, mice that were injected with antibodies from healthy people were not affected.
The researchers said this demonstrates that “patient antibodies cause, or at least are a major contributor to the disease”.
In addition, mice injected with fibromyalgia antibodies recovered after a few weeks – when they had been cleared from the system.
The scientists said their findings open the door to potential new therapies based on autoantibodies – proteins that work against the body instead of protecting it.
Dr David Andersson, the study’s primary investigator from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, said: “The implications of this study are profound.
“Establishing that fibromyalgia is an autoimmune disorder will transform how we view the condition and should pave the way for more effective treatments for the millions of people affected.
“Our work has uncovered a whole new area of therapeutic options and should give real hope to fibromyalgia patients.
“Previous exploration of therapies has been hampered by our limited understanding of the illness. This should now change.
“Treatment for FMS is focussed on gentle aerobic exercises, as well as drug and psychological therapies designed to manage pain, although these have proven ineffective in most patients and have left behind an enormous unmet clinical need.”