A recent study threw up an interesting notion on the root of fibromyalgia. The study suggests that fibromyalgia could be caused by malfunctions in two chief body systems – the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA). These two body systems are key in regulating the production of important hormones and managing stress responses by the body. Imbalance in the two body systems can lead to sleeplessness, lack of energy, higher pain sensitivity, mood changes, digestive problems etc…
Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
The Autonomic Nervous System is a large network of multifaceted neurons that maintain homeostasis in the body. This network includes cardiovascular, ophthalmologic, thermoregulatory, genitourinary and gastrointestinal systems in the body.
The ANS contains both the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic nervous systems. The former controls the response called “fight or flight” when one gets into seemingly dangerous situations, whereas the Parasympathetic nervous system lowers the heart rate and slows down the muscles to save energy.
Fibromyalgia is linked to a malfunction in the ANS. Patients of fibromyalgia find that their Sympathetic Nervous System functions at an elevated pace and that their Parasympathetic Nervous System works at a much lower rate. Such individuals always face this inevitable “fight or flight” response. When such individuals are in a hyperactive state, they have an escalated heart rate. Women with this problem suffer with a dysfunctional ANS.
Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA)
The HPA axis is a network of stress responses by the brain, pituitary and adrenal glands. The main function of the hypothalamus is to maintain the body’s balance. It receives and sends messages from the nervous system via hormones through the circulatory system. The hypothalamus regulates and controls blood pressure, digestion, sleep cycles, sex drive, body temperature, coordination, heart rate and sweating.
The pituitary gland is responsible for the secretion of certain important hormones for the body while the Adrenal Gland produces hormones for the entire body and controls chemical reactions and the “fight or flight” response to stress.
How ANS and HPA Lead To Fibromyalgia Pain
Together, the ANS and the HPA axis are major paths for body responses during stressful conditions. These responses include pain, trauma, infection, low blood sugar and low blood pressure.
Due to certain malfunctions in the ANS and HPA, the body can struggle to maintain homeostasis. External factors such as persistent daily stress, injury or other stressors can further knock the body’s equilibirum off-balance. The body systems and stress response regulated by the ANS ans HPA respectively can go haywire.
Studies conducted have shown that fibromyalgia patients are prone to either inactivity or overactivity in the HPA, causing abonormal levels of important hormones and hence leading to various symptoms of fibromyalgia.