The more I try to learn about the cause of fibromyalgia, the more I just get confused. Some sources say it's caused by autoimmune diseases, some say it's hereditary, some say it's because of a virus or a neck injury or diet or chronic stress, and recently someone told me it's caused by depression. What really is the cause of fibromyalgia?
As you've seen, that's not an easy answer to find! In fact, researchers have been seeking the answer to "what causes fibromyalgia" for decades.
We don't yet have the full answer, but researchers strongly suspect a couple of things:
- Fibromyalgia is likely caused by a combination of things referred to as "causal factors" instead of "causes."
- It's likely that multiple combinations of causal factors can result in the illness.
- There's likely a genetic predisposition, but not an actual hereditary cause.
In addition to genetic predisposition, causal factors may include:
- Autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis
- Chronic pain
- Traumatic injuries
- Chronic stress
- Sleep disorders
- Viral or bacterial infections
- Major hormonal events
Some of these conditions may increase your risk of developing fibromyalgia through chronic pain. Some research suggests that when pain signals constantly bombard your brain, they make physiological changes in how your brain processes pain, and those changes can result in fibromyalgia.
Certain autoimmune diseases may also include unidentified factors that make fibromyalgia especially likely.
The other possible causal factors listed all represent significant sources of physiological stress on the body.
Multiple different combinations of causal factors are believed to result in fibromyalgia. For example, one person may develop it suddenly after a car accident while another may develop it gradually as a result of life-long sleep disorders, a few years with an autoimmune disease, and onset of menopause.
You'll notice that depression is not on the list. The idea that fibromyalgia is a type of depression or results from depression is outdated, although unfortunately not all medical practitioners have updated their thinking.
It's true that, according to studies, people with fibromyalgia are often depressed, and rates of depression are higher in us than in people with other painful conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis. However, this may be due to things such as: some common underlying physiology between fibromyalgia and depression (such as imbalances of certain neurotransmitters); the difficulty of treating fibromyalgia; and the level of disbelief in and scorn for the illness in the medical community and public at large.
So far, we don't know what, if any, influence different sets of causal factors have on the condition and whether identifying causal factors can help guide treatment choices. Researchers currently are working on proper identification of subgroups of fibromyalgia patients to aid with research and treatment, and that will allow them to eventually look at commonalities, such as causal factors, within each subgroup.