Fibromyalgia is a condition with symptoms such as fatigue, impaired sleep and an inability to concentrate, but it is most known for widespread chronic pain. There is no known cure and its cause is a mystery.
But more light is being shed on the disease as a report published in the journal Pain explains how researchers from McGill University Health Centre in Canada discovered a difference in gut bacteria between the 2-4 percent of the population who suffer and those who don’t.
Scientists found 19 different strains of bacteria in greater or lesser quantities in those suffering from the disease compared to the healthy control group. There were 77 fibromyalgia sufferers among the 156 study participants and researchers studied stool, blood, saliva and urine samples from both. Some of the healthy study participants lived in the same house as the fibromyalgia patients and were even related as parents, siblings or offspring.
"We used a range of techniques, including Artificial Intelligence, to confirm that the changes we saw in the microbiomes of fibromyalgia patients were not caused by factors such as diet, medication, physical activity, age, and so on, which are known to affect the microbiome," says Dr. Amir Minerbi, from the Alan Edwards Pain Management Unit at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC). "We found that fibromyalgia and the symptoms of fibromyalgia—pain, fatigue and cognitive difficulties—contribute more than any of the other factors to the variations we see in the microbiomes of those with the disease. We also saw that the severity of a patient's symptoms was directly correlated with an increased presence or a more pronounced absence of certain bacteria—something which has never been reported before."
Scientists are not sure at this point if the difference in gut bacteria is just a marker for fibromyalgia or if it is actually a cause in some way. They hope to explore what role the bacteria play in the development of chronic pain and fibromyalgia and if there is a way to speed up the diagnosis of the disease or even develop a cure.
"We sorted through large amounts of data, identifying 19 species that were either increased or decreased in individuals with fibromyalgia," says Emmanuel Gonzalez, from the Canadian Center for Computational Genomics and the Department of Human Genetics at McGill University. "By using machine learning, our computer was able to make a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, based only on the composition of the microbiome, with an accuracy of 87 per cent. As we build on this first discovery with more research, we hope to improve upon this accuracy, potentially creating a step-change in diagnosis."
"People with fibromyalgia suffer not only from the symptoms of their disease but also from the difficulty of family, friends and medical teams to comprehend their symptoms," says Yoram Shir, Director of the Alan Edwards Pain Management Unit at the MUHC. "As pain physicians, we are frustrated by our inability to help, and this frustration is a good fuel for research. This is the first evidence, at least in humans, that the microbiome could have an effect on diffuse pain, and we really need new ways to look at chronic pain."