Fibromyalgia affects 2-4 percent of the population and has no known cure. Symptoms include fatigue, impaired sleep, and cognitive difficulties, but the disease is most clearly characterized by widespread chronic pain.
As reported in the journal Pain, approximately 20 different species of bacteria were found in either greater or lesser quantities in the microbiomes of participants suffering from the disease than in the healthy control group.
“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 Amir Minerbi of the Alan Edwards Pain Management Unit at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), and first author of the paper.
“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,” Minerbi adds.
“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.”
At this point, it’s not clear whether the changes in gut bacteria seen in patients with fibromyalgia are simply markers of the disease or whether they play a role in causing it. Because the disease involves a cluster of symptoms, and not simply pain, the next step in the research will be to investigate whether there are similar changes in the gut microbiome in other conditions involving chronic pain, such as lower back pain, headaches, and neuropathic pain.
The researchers are also interested in exploring whether bacteria play a causal role in the development of pain and fibromyalgia. And whether their presence could, eventually, help in finding a cure, as well as speed up the process of diagnosis.