One of the many frustrating things about fibromyalgia is getting it properly diagnosed. According to the American College of Rheumatology, fibromyalgia patients spend an average of three to five years before being diagnosed with the chronic pain disorder.
A simple new blood test could now be on the horizon to change that.
“We’ve got really good evidence of a test that could be an important aid in the diagnosis of fibromyalgia patients,” says Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD, a professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Ohio State University and senior author of a study being published next month in the journal Analyst.
In a small study at Ohio State, researchers used a high powered infrared microscope to identify a pattern of molecules in the blood that is unique to fibromyalgia patients.
That pattern – a biological “fingerprint” of fibromyalgia – was then tested in a blind study against blood samples from patients with rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis. The blood test confirmed, with 100% accuracy, which patients had fibromyalgia.
“It separated them completely, with no misclassifications,” Buffington said. “That’s very important. It never mistook a patient with fibromyalgia for a patient with arthritis. Clearly we need more numbers, but this showed the technique is quite effective.”
Buffington may be a veterinarian, but he’s spent the past 25 years studying interstitial cystitis (IC), a painful bladder disorder that occurs in both cats and humans. He identified a similar molecular “fingerprint” for IC that is shared by both cats and humans.
Because many IC sufferers also have fibromyalgia, Buffington decided to expand his research.
“I frankly don’t know much about fibromyalgia,” Bufffington is quick to admit. But he was curious to see if a fingerprint could be found for fibromyalgia in human blood.
Working with other colleagues at Ohio State, Buffington obtained blood samples from 14 fibromyalgia patients, 15 patients with rheumatoid arthritis, and 12 with osteoarthritis. The other conditions were chosen because they produce similar symptoms as fibromyalgia, but are easier to diagnose.
The infrared microscope recognized a molecular pattern in the blood of fibromyalgia patients, a combination of amino acids that was different from those with rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis.
Even Buffington was surprised by the results.
“Frankly I didn’t believe it,” Buffington told National Pain Report. “It’s not that I disbelieved it, it’s just that we should all be skeptical of results like that. But we looked at it as carefully as we could and it kept coming back the same.”
He says more research is needed to precisely identify which molecules and amino acids are present in the blood and in what quantity.
“We can identify the pattern, but we haven’t clarified what the pattern is the result of, exactly which molecules and in what concentrations. That’s a fairly daunting task,” he says.
A simple blood test would be a godsend to fibromyalgia sufferers, who often spend years battling chronic pain, fatigue, insomnia and depression – and often the disbelief of physicians and loved ones.
“It takes, according to statistics, about five years to get a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. And five years in our medical meat grinder is more than most people can stand,” says Buffington.
“I think the earlier we diagnosis this, the more time, money and frustration we’re going to save for everybody.”
Studies have shown that a diagnosis alone often improves the health satisfaction and symptoms of fibromyalgia patients, and the cost of their medical treatment declines significantly once other health problems are ruled out.
“The importance of producing a faster diagnosis cannot be overstated, because patients experience tremendous stress during the diagnostic process. Just getting the diagnosis actually makes patients feel better and lowers costs because of reductions in anxiety,” said Kevin Hackshaw, MD, a rheumatologist, associate professor of medicine at Ohio State and lead author of the study.
Other researchers are intrigued by the Ohio State study.
“My first impression is that this is a powerful analytical technique,” said Frank Rice, PhD, president and chief scientist of Integrated Tissue Dynamics LLC , where researchers recently reported that fibromyalgia patients had extra nerve fibers in the blood vessels of their hands.
“I think the authors would agree that the objective of the study was to determine whether they could discriminate between fibromyalgia patients versus patients with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. They were successful in showing that the fibromyalgia profile was substantially different than that of the other two conditions,” Rice said in an email to National Pain Report.
But Rice also pointed out that the study did not compare fibromyalgia patients to normal subjects, so the blood analysis could not be called a diagnostic test without further research.
A company based in Santa Monica, California recently came out with a blood test that it claims can diagnose fibromyalgia with 93% accuracy.
EpicGenetics says its FM test looks for protein molecules in the blood called chemokines and cytokines, which are produced by white blood cells. Fibromyalgia patients, according to the company, have fewer of these proteins in their blood.
But critics say the same protein markers can also be found in people with other illnesses, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
The FM test costs $744 and is not covered by insurance. Results are usually available in about a week, according to EpicGenetics.