Lady Gaga’s Diagnosis Helps Shed Light on a Perplexing Chronic Pain Disorder

Despite her celebrity status, Lady Gaga has been remarkably honest and open about her struggles with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder. The star announced her diagnosis on social media earlier this month, and just recently canceled tour dates due to disorder-related complications.

Fibromyalgia has traditionally been a challenge to diagnose and treat, because there is no test for it. Doctors make the diagnosis based on patient reported symptoms. Researchers at Mass General are hoping to change that by using imaging techniques to demonstrate brain changes in fibromyalgia patients and investigating potential causes for the disease.

What is fibromyalgia and what are the symptoms?

Fibromyalgia is a common chronic pain disorder that can be extremely debilitating. The disorder is characterized by widespread pain, accompanied with un-refreshing sleep, fatigue, memory and cognitive problems, sensitivity to temperatures, light, and sound, and headaches. It can also co-exist with other conditions including depression, anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome.

These symptoms severely impact the 5-10 million Americans living with this disorder. The pain and fatigue of fibromyalgia can make it difficult to maintain work and social obligations. Symptoms also come in waves at seemingly random intervals, which can blindside individuals.

What causes fibromyalgia?

It’s thought that disturbances in the central nervous system affect the way the brain processes pain signals, which amplifies the painful sensations that fibromyalgia patients experience. But why these disturbances occur remains a mystery.

Experts suggest that the disorder could be driven by several factors, including physical or emotional trauma, prior illness or infection, and genetics. Women are also more likely to develop fibromyalgia than are men, though researchers don’t know why.

In an effort to find answers to these questions, Marco Loggia, PhD, Associate Director of the Center for Integrative Pain NeuroImaging and a researcher in the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital, studies the brain mechanisms of pain in patients with fibromyalgia. His research suggests that some degree of brain inflammation may be at play, given that brain inflammation is common among chronic back pain sufferers and most fibromyalgia patients suffer from chronic back pain.

How is it treated?

There is no cure for fibromyalgia. As a result, the focus of treatment is on managing pain and improving quality of life for patients. However, patients often struggle to find the right combination of treatments to manage their condition.

Clinicians often recommend medications including pain relievers, anti-depressants, and anti-seizure drugs to reduce pain and improve sleep. Some patients also utilize therapies such as physical therapy or counseling and alternative treatments like massage therapy, yoga or acupuncture.

Is there stigma associated with fibromyalgia?

Because there are no lab tests to diagnose fibromyalgia, patients are frequently met with skepticism, even by their own primary care team. The pain they report is often dismissed as being “all in their head.”

In a recent interview with HealthDay News, Loggia said, “Many studies—and particularly those using brain imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging—have now provided substantial support to the notion that the excessive sensitivity to pain that these patients demonstrate is genuine. I think that it is time to stop dismissing these patients.”

With celebrities like Lady Gaga raising awareness of this disease and researchers like Loggia investigating its causes and progression, could individuals suffering from fibromyalgia soon see advances in treatment and care—as well as more public understanding of this debilitating disorder?

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