Chronic pain, depression, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue all seem to feed off each other but which came first? What is the root of this debilitation?

This is a difficult question to answer. The etiology of each of these chronic illnesses remains, alas, a mystery that we have yet to conclusively solve.

That being said, it is very important that we solve them. Why? Because baby-boomers (a very large portion of the American population) are headed into geriatric conditions. Among the most common of these is fibromyaligia. It is to pain management, what alzheimer’s and frontotemporal dementia are to neurology.

What we do know is that pain, fibromyalgia, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome often share common symptoms:

  • sleep disturbance (usually long-term)
  • excessive stress levels
  • psychological repercussions/detriments from sleep loss, excessive stress, and other factors
  • reduced capacity for activities of daily living (ADLs), resulting in reduced cardiovascular exercise and resultant hypofitness

All these factors result in:

Fibromyalgia domains[1]

We also know that although the above symptoms seem to correlate with inflammation, research has shown a demonstrated lack of local inflammation in these shared co-morbidities (common co-occurences). In addition, as inflammation does not occur, anti-inflammatories do not help.

Further answers to this question have filled many textbooks (and been part of ongoing debate in pain management) due to unexplained etiology: if we could figure out the biological pathways that develop the disease, we would at least be closer to a definitive understanding of the commonalities between these diseases. We could then address and treat them definitively.

To my knowledge, the closest we have come to a definitive etiology of fibromyalgia is as follows (if someone knows differently, PLEASE correct me):

  • Fibromyalgia can be considered a discrete condition, as well as a construct. This helps explain how/why individuals have multifocal pain and other somatic symptoms in spite of the lack of nociceptive input (i.e., peripheral damage/inflammation) that adequately accounts for the pain.
  • The primary abnormality, identified to date in fibromyalgia and related pain syndromes, is an increased gain (as in a volume control turned up) in central nervous system pain processing (i.e., secondary hyperalgesia/allodynia).
  • It is likely that this “turning up the volume” on pain and sensory processing is in part due to increased levels of excitatory neurotransmitters (e.g., glutamate, substance P), and/or low levels of inhibitory neurotransmitters (serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA, cannabinoids).
  • Analgesics that work well for “peripheral/nociceptive” pain syndromes (e.g., NSAIDS, opioids), are largely ineffective in fibromyalgia.
  • The most effective classes of drugs in fibromyalgia are centrally acting analgesics (e.g., triciyclics, serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, “SNRI”s, and anticonvulsants (calcium channel blockers).
  • Nonpharmacologic therapies such as education, exercise, manual therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy are very effective in fibromyalgia and are typically underutilized in routine clinical practices. [2]

Diffuse pain (11/18 points on the body) [3]

Diffuse pain (11/18 points on the body – see diagram above) is the hallmark of fibromyalgia, and this is notably absent in depression and chronic fatigue syndrome. It is also absent, in this pattern, in myofascial pain syndrome (MPS), which tends to be more localised, and also tends to be more functionally oriented. In the fibromyalgia patient, the common complaint is that, “I hurt all over.” The tissue feels very soft and broken-down, versus taut bands and knots of MPS. However, they do sometimes coincide. (See Devin Starlanyle and Mary Ellen Copeland’s “Fibromyalgia & Chronic Myofascial Pain.”)

"Fibromyalgia & Chronic Myofascial Pain: A Survival Manual."

As to how this has been established in case studies, please see the below table:

Frequency of Comorbidity in Fibromyaliga[4]

So, what does this all mean?

  • Sleep quality/quantity is interrupted.
  • There is usually a level of sustained stress and psychological distress.
  • There is a discrepancy of diagnostic criteria: pain with fatigue and psychological distress, versus fatigue and psychological distress, versus psychological distress alone. Granted, cases may change over time (see above diagragm) but the primary characteristics of each individual’s case remain unique in these criteria.

To show this in another way, here’s a current diagram for commonalities that would produce these common symptoms:

Neural Influences on Pain and Sensory Processing[5]

This would help to explain the commonalities of:

  • sleep disturbance ~/= fatigue
  • depression
  • low pain threshold (easily triggered pain)
  • functional compromise

In addition, it may explain why:

  • Amitryptaline/Nortryptaline (SSRI) are helpful in treating many of these common symptoms, via increased levels of available serotonin and norepinephrine/noradrenaline levels in overall tissue.
  • Lyrica/Neurontin (Ca Channel blockers) are helpful to treat many of these common symptoms, via reduced central excitability in signal (especially pain signal) processing.

It is agreed, though, in interdisciplinary pain management, that effective therapy for ALL of these conditions MUST include:

  • Appropriate pharmacologic prescriptions, and
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, to learn triggering deactivation and new coping mechanisms: to mediate pain perception and subsequent neuromodulation.

The following is further noted as helpful:

  • Physical therapy: Begin an appropriate “start low, go slow” low-impact cardiovascular exercise program, such as aquatic therapy or other low-impact mechanisms. This maximises tissue metabolism and ultimate tone.
  • Massage therapy: This modality maximises efficiency of circulatory return and tissue metabolism, in order to enable the tissue to respond to functional demands and short/long-term capabilities (much like physical therapy).
  • Acupuncture: This modality reduces overall CNS (central nervous system) hyperactivation and restores CNS stability. Some studies vary as to the effectiveness of this modality, but observed results are more consistent. In practice, it has shown to help with patient’s ability to comply with functional demands, perhaps due to lowering levels of CNS hyperalgesia. [6]

I wish I had more definitive information to convey. In pain management circles, this is what we’ve got so far. Know, however, that we’re working on it, ardently.

I’ll update as I’m able to.


  1. Essentials of Pain Medicine, 3d Edition; 2011; Benson, Raja, et al.; pg. 346
  2. Ibid., pg.350
  3. fibromyalgia points of pain diagram
  4. Weiner’s Pain Management: A Practical Guide for Clinicians (American Academy of Pain Management), 7th edition; 2007; Mark V. Boswell, B. Eliot Cole; pg. 497
  5. Essentials of Pain Medicine, pg.347
  6. What can neuroscience conclude about acupuncture? by Adriano Stephan on CogSci

What kind of doctor should I see if I have myofascial pain syndrome?

What kind of doctor should I see if I have myofascial pain syndrome?

This answer is based on my 25 years of teaming up with Bay Area physicians to help patients with myofascial pain syndrome.

To see the most effective and well-educated physician for myofascial pain syndrome, you should see a physiatrist, especially one specializing in pain management. Some other options include:

  • Physicians who specialize in occupational injury, as they seem to have greater training and understanding of myofascial pain syndrome, and
  • An increasing number of neurologists and orthopedists who specialize in pain management.

The first step to finding the right medical professional will be to do your own research on your condition, and thereby make sure that you actually have symptoms that fit the profile of MPS. While an official diagnosis will need to be done by a physician, your self-education will (or should) be welcomed by the physician, as it will save them time.

Next, you will want to do a cursory search on Google and Yelp to determine which physicians state a specialty in MPS. There may be many, as physicians seem to be racing to learn proper protocol for MPS treatment right now. The primary physiatrist I knew at Stanford Pain Management Clinic spends about 65% of his time traveling to educate physiatrists in MPS. Once you’ve decided a doctor might be right for you, you can always call their office, and ask the staff if they treat myofascial pain syndrome. You can even ask how they do it; or you can ask the physician at the appointment.

If they reply, “We inject cortisone into the sore/tender area,” they are probably not well-trained, as this doesn’t address the taut band and trigger point.

As part of a team with the well-trained physician, my job is to get rid of as much of the active/latent trigger points as possible. If there’s something I can’t address (too deep, too active, etc.), they inject it, because IT WORKS. However, they also realize that you can’t do more than 4 or 5 at a go, because they are painful.

The internet and the phone are your friends. Don’t be afraid to use them in order to find the best doctor to help you. Good luck!


How does one transition from a narcotic-based pain-management system to one that is non-narcotic-based? How do the two compare?

How does one transition from a narcotic-based pain-management system to one that is non-narcotic-based? How do the two compare?

The most important thrust of the question is: “I’d really like to come off the narcotics but I have no idea what else would successfully cover my pain.” THIS is what is facing most people in the midst of chronic pain: they don’t want to become addicted to pain medications, but they can’t function without them.  What effective alternatives are there?

This is a really great question, and it is one of the questions dominating focus, research, debate and policy in pain management today. Narcotics work very, very well: they “turn off” the pain signal, so that you don’t perceive it through your sensory nervous system. This is a delight for the pain patient who is constantly suffering. “A relief from that pain? Heck yeah, sign me up!”

The problem that pain management clinicians and researchers are struggling with is the “activation threshold” of pain. That is, when you dampen the pain signal over time, your system adjusts to that factor, and then the pain threshold lowers, UNLESS you have the medication intervening. Which means you need higher doses of your medication to achieve the same level of relief from pain.

Initially, this means that you can essentially do more with less pain. Yay, right? Not necessarily. What if, even while you feel less pain, you do more damage to the mechanical tissues of your body because you can’t feel the painful feedback your body sends to tell you you’re hurting it? If this happens, it usually results in further injury. For example, let’s say you have a torn muscle in your leg. You numb it with narcotics so that you can run on it. While you don’t feel the pain caused by running on the leg with the torn muscle, this exercise, in this state, almost guarantees extra damage to the torn muscle.

This brings up the crucial factor with which all researchers and clinicians struggle: What is actually causing the pain, both anatomically and physiologically? How did it start? What sustains it? How does one address both anatomy and physiology without making the patient increasingly dependent on medication for relief, or hopefully, recovery?

For this, you need a case director (usually MD/DO) who is well educated and experienced with a BROAD variety of treatment options. These options need to include “alternatives” such as chiropractic, acupuncture, biofeedback and advanced manual therapy. All of these techniques (tools in the therapeutic toolbox, if you will) do have limited studies done regarding their efficacy. The best “director” for your case will be an advanced MD/DO who has been apprised of those studies, and who also has had significant clinical experience with these “tools” and their benefits.

They will know how to best reduce your current medication (possibly in favor of one with lesser side-effects) and also how best to integrate effective “alternative” techniques into your treatment plan and its goals. These goals, often including comfortable and effective resumption of activities of daily living (ADLs) are superimposed with medication dosages in order to determine their therapeutic efficacy.

A good place to start finding a knowledgeable physician to guide your case is with the American Academy of Pain Management. The AAPM is the only institution to currently accredit those in multidisciplinary pain management, and they are committed to an interdisciplinary approach.

If you are merely exploring competent practitioners in alternative methods, PLEASE study their CVs, license, certifications and experience. I would recommend distrusting anyone who says, “Oh, I can cure you; the technique I use is the only one that works.” NO technique is a panacea – NONE. If they can’t discuss the strengths and limitations (almost more important) of their technique, then they are downright dangerous to you.

You need a good guide. That’s what a great pain management doctor does. Go find yourself one! Best of luck.