Neurological Issues with Fibromyalgia: Migraine, Light Sensitivity & More
Fibromyalgia is generally characterized by chronic pain and fatigue as well as sensitivity or tenderness in the joints and muscle tissue. There have also been many links between fibromyalgia and other neurological disorders, although it is unclear if they are directly correlated. Regardless, many people with fibromyalgia (FM) report sensitivity to light, headaches and migraine attacks as symptoms or comorbidities of the condition. Here we explore the different ways that fibromyalgia can impact the mind and body.
Photophobia and Painful Light Sensitivity
One of the most common fibromyalgia-related issues is painful sensitivity to light, also known as photophobia. One study showed that bright light caused pain for patients with fibromyalgia at an astonishing rate of 70%, more than any other reported neurological symptom; this compared to only 6% for people without a chronic pain syndrome.(1) A primary reason for increasing levels of photophobia is likely due to the ongoing external sensitivities and lower pain threshold associated with the fibromyalgia; this has been previously described as “sensory overload.” Additionally, comorbid disorders such as dry eye and migraine—which are observed at higher rates in people with FM—include light sensitivity as a prominent side effect.
As with migraine light sensitivity, certain types of light such as fluorescent lighting or sunlight pose additional risks for a person with fibromyalgia-related photophobia. In addition to its brightness, the wavelengths or pattern of a light source can worsen these sensitivities and pain in patients with fibromyalgia. As a result, many actively avoid many types of situations where light could be a potential concern; however, this can further contribute to feelings of isolation or even depression, which are also commonly associated with FM.
Wearing polarized sunglasses outdoors will cut down on outside glare and bright sunlight while FL 41 tinted glasses can be an option for indoor use around fluorescent lighting or other harmful interior lighting. Home and workplace lighting adjustments as well as wide-brimmed hats may also be resources for photophobic individuals. See more suggestions by clicking the button below.
Migraine and Tension-Type Headache
Fibromyalgia and migraine have long been connected in medical research. Studies have revealed that more than half of fibromyalgia patients have also met the diagnostic criteria for migraine, with and without aura; tension-type headache—which is characterized by mild or moderate pain around the head—has also been linked to FM.(2)(3) Chronic migraine has also been shown to increase episodes of pain in people with fibromyalgia, among other symptoms such as high frequency of headache, sleep disturbances and anxiety.(4)(5) Greater instances of headache-related disability as well as overall severity of migraine attacks were also more pronounced in patients with both disorders.(6)
Although the causes of either condition are not immediately clear, some researchers have suggested that the two conditions reflect issues with how the nervous system processes pain. Both disorders also disproportionately affect women, which may partially explain their mutual presence. Furthermore, light, noise, touch and/or joint stiffness can act as triggers for both fibromyalgia and migraine.
Generally speaking, trigger management and attack prevention are critical treatment methods for these two disorders. Migraine-specific medication that is effective in reducing attacks may also be an option for minimizing fibromyalgia flares, according to research. This makes proper diagnosis from the appropriate medical professionals crucial in order to identify the right mix of remedies for people with both conditions.
Allodynia and touch sensitivity
Another neurological consequence of fibromyalgia is allodynia. This is frequently experienced as sensitivity or pain as a result of touch (“tactile allodynia”), through the skin or other pain receptors in the body. The key distinguishing factor of allodynia is that it is triggered by something that would not otherwise cause pain. Oftentimes, this discomfort can manifest while wearing a hat or glasses due to added weight and pressure on the head, neck or face; or exposure to changes in temperature; or while shaking a person’s hand. Moreover, the prevalence of chronic pain conditions, especially with additional comorbidities such as migraine, have been shown to increase reports of skin-related allodynia.(7) It is believed that the hyperreactivity of the nervous system is the primary culprit for the manifestation of this symptom in people with fibromyalgia, migraine, or both.
While it possible that pain cream and other remedies may be an option to help alleviate touch sensitivity, it is still recommended to find the most effective treatments for the underlying condition. In tandem with other behavioral or environmental changes, they can help those with fibromyalgia better manage the painful effects of this symptom.
Other neurological symptoms
There are numerous other identified neurologic symptoms connected to fibromyalgia. Patients cited lack of balance, numbness or weakness in the arms / legs, dizziness, and blurry vision as frequent FM symptoms. Dry eye has also been seen at greater rates in people with fibromyalgia. Although not a direct neurological problem, the association between dry eye and migraine (as well as photophobia) has been presented in numerous studies, suggesting a complex relationship with the chronic pain syndrome.
1 Watson NF, Buchwald D, Goldberg J, Noonan C, Ellenbogen RG. Neurological Signs and Symptoms in Fibromyalgia. Arthritis and rheumatism. 2009;60(9):2839-2844. doi:10.1002/art.24772.
2 Vij B, Whipple MO, Tepper SJ, Mohabbat AB, Stillman M, Vincent A. Frequency of Migraine Headaches in Patients With Fibromyalgia. Headache. 2015 Jun;55(6):860-5. doi: 10.1111/head.12590. Epub 2015 May 21.
3 Sacco S, Ricci S, Carolei A. Tension-type headache and systemic medical disorders. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2011 Dec;15(6):438-43. doi: 10.1007/s11916-011-0222-2.
4 Giamberardino MA, Giannapia Affaitati, Martelletti P, Tana C, Negro A, Lapenna D, Curto M, Schiavone C, Stellin L, Cipollone F, Costantini R. Impact of migraine on fibromyalgia symptoms. The Journal of Headache and Pain. 2016;17:28. DOI: 10.1186/s10194-016-0619-8.
5 de Tommaso M. Prevalence, clinical features and potential therapies for fibromyalgia in primary headaches. Expert Rev Neurother. 2012 Mar;12(3):287-95; quiz 296. doi: 10.1586/ern.11.190.
6 Küçükşen S, Genç E, Yılmaz H, Sallı A, Gezer İA, Karahan AY, Salbaş E, Cingöz HT, Nas Ö, Uğurlu H. The prevalence of fibromyalgia and its relation with headache characteristics in episodic migraine. Clin Rheumatol. 2013 Jul;32(7):983-90. doi: 10.1007/s10067-013-2218-2. Epub 2013 Feb 27.
7 Tietjen GE, Brandes JL, Peterlin BL, Eloff A, Dafer RM, Stein MR, Drexler E, Martin VT, Hutchinson S, Aurora SK, Recober A, Herial NA, Utley C, White L, Khuder SA. Allodynia in migraine: association with comorbid pain conditions. Headache. 2009 Oct;49(9):1333-44. doi: 10.1111/j.1526-4610.2009.01521.x.