Fibromyalgia Researchers Say Discovery Could Change Treatment of Chronic Pain

Fibromyalgia Researchers Say Discovery Could Change Treatment of Chronic Pain

Dr. Frank Rice remembers the day when he realized he was onto something.

“There was something very unusual that we had just never seen before,” Rice recalls. “It’s one of those things that get you jumping up from the microscope and running down the halls, grabbing people and saying ‘Here, come take a look at this!’”

Frank Rice, PhD, looks at microscopic images of nerve fibers in fibromyalgia patients. Image courtesy of Intidyn.

Frank Rice, PhD, looks at microscopic images of nerve fibers in fibromyalgia patients. Image courtesy of Intidyn.

What Rice was looking at under his microscope was skin biopsy tissue, less than half the size of a pencil eraser, taken from the palms of female fibromyalgia patients. In 17 of the 18 samples that could be analyzed, Rice says the patients had an unusual amount of extra nerve fibers that had somehow “sprouted” around tiny blood vessels in their skin.

Finding the same disorder in 17 out of 18 patients was significant – even for a small study.

“That was what was so striking about this. It was so drastically different from anything we have seen before,” says Rice, who is president and chief scientist of Integrated Tissue Dynamics LLC (Intidyn), a bioresearch company based in Rensselaer, New York.

“It was a really, really striking pathology.”

What Rice and his colleagues at Intidyn and Albany Medical College may have discovered is the first biological evidence of what causes the pain and other symptoms of fibromyalgia, a complex disorder that has stumped physicians and researchers for decades.

Fibromyalgia patients typically suffer from joint pain, deep tissue pain, fatigue, depression, headaches and lack of sleep. What causes this whole range of symptoms – which are difficult to treat, much less cure – has long been a mystery.

“We suspected there would be something to see. Yet this is such an ‘out of the box’ finding about fibromyalgia that it has the potential to change not only the way we look at the disorder but also the way we can treat it and more effectively take care of people who have it,” said Dr. Charles Argoff, an Albany Medical Center neurologist and pain specialist, who was the study’s chief investigator.

Argoff and Rice compare fibromyalgia to a car with a broken cooling system. When the engine first starts, the car runs smoothly. But eventually the engine overheats and the car breaks down.

What causes the body to “overheat” with fibromyalgia?

The culprit may be those excess nerve fibers, which accumulate around tiny muscular valves or “shunts” that have a unique structure in blood vessels on the palms of the hands, as well as the soles of the feet.

The shunts, which are about the size of a pencil point, act as thermostats that regulate body heat. Under warm conditions, the shunts close down to force blood into the capillaries of the skin – radiating heat away from the body. Under cold conditions, the shunts open wide, allowing blood to bypass the capillaries in order to conserve heat.

A shunt from a fibromyalgia patient has far more nerve endings (green area) than a shunt from a normal patient. Image courtesy of Intidyn.

A shunt from a fibromyalgia patient has far more nerve endings (green area) than a shunt from a normal patient. Image courtesy of Intidyn.

That may explain why fibromyalgia patients often have painful or tender hands, and are sensitive to sudden weather changes. The shunts could also be interfering with the flow of blood to muscles and organs throughout the body, which would account for the widespread pain, achiness and fatigue that occurs in fibromyalgia patients.

As we reported last week, Rice and Argoff have reported their findings in Pain Medicine, the journal of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. They are also broadening their research, to see if excess nerve fibers may play a role in other chronic pain disorders.

Frank Rice, PhD, President of Intidyn

Frank Rice, PhD, President of Intidyn

“Now that we know that these nerve fibers can be problematic, we are extending into other areas. There’s been a lot of mysterious diseases, chronic fatigue, post-traumatic stress, irritable bowel, restless leg. They all share the same enigmatic, is it real, phenomenon” says Rice.

One such study is in its preliminary stages in San Diego, where researchers are looking at men who suffer from fibromyalgia and post-traumatic stress (PTSD), a chronic anxiety disorder that people experience after a traumatic event. Many patients who suffer from PTSD also have symptoms of fibromyalgia, and some experts believe the two disorders could both be triggered by chronic stress.

“A stressful situation could be causing activity out to the body tissues and is causing the nerve endings to change their characteristics,” says Rice. “The other possibility is that there may be a genetic predisposition, that there’s something about these people who develop fibromyalgia that make these nerve endings more susceptible to changing due to hormonal changes or dietary changes. We don’t know.”

Rice has looked at some of the first biopsy tissue samples from San Diego and seen some of the same excess nerve fibers he saw in fibromyalgia patients.

“We have seen the same pathology; it’s just not as consistent as those. When you’re dealing with PTSD, you can have more of the depression and not necessarily the pain symptoms that the fibromyalgia patient has,” Rice told National Pain Report. “We don’t yet know what we’re seeing there.”

Charles Argoff, MD, Albany Medical Center

Charles Argoff, MD, Albany Medical Center

“We haven’t found this particular finding in individuals with other chronic pain states. We haven’t seen that yet,” adds Argoff. “But what we do know is that in other chronic pain states there are abnormalities of expression of various neuroactive agents in the skin.”

“For the last decade there have been increasing numbers of reports in diabetic neuropathy, in complex regional pain syndrome and now in fibromyalgia of abnormalities of neurochemistry in the skin that may have much more importance than ever recognized in understanding what is happening in the nervous system.”

If the skin and peripheral nerves are responsible, Argoff says the finding would reverse “previously published dogma” that fibromyalgia is a disorder of the brain and central nervous system.

“But we have to prove that. And we have not proven that,” he adds.

About 10 million Americans suffer from fibromyalgia, and one in 20 people worldwide. Many have been told by their physicians that the disorder is untreatable, incurable and “all in their head.”

This new research may not lead to a cure, but it could finally give fibromyalgia sufferers some long sought answers.

“The key to the finding is that there is something really there. Whatever the cause is, it’s important for people to understand that something is physically wrong. And that’s a big step,” says Rice.

“Just to know there is something wrong, I found among friends, is an enormous relief in its own right.”

Authored by: Pat Anson, Editor

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I am so grateful to and for Dr. Rice, Dr. Albrecht, and the rest of their research team. I hope their discoveries lead to a cure or effective treatment very soon. As for practitioners who have been taking money from me and my insurance company for the past 30 years, they should be flogged for their intellectual dishonesty. If “I don’t know” is the only thing a physician can say with honesty and integrity, they should just say that. Instead, they took the money and then blamed their treatment failure on a myriad of character flaws they attributed to me (being a lazy malingerer, having a mental illness, just seeking narcotic drugs, etc., etc.).

Becky Potter

Hello, I suffered with Fibromyalgia for all of my life. The falling at first at age 2, then stomach problems then pain in the back of my neck & shoulders. At age 18 I went to our DR explained all the off the wall problems. He then told me I was depressed and wrote me an RX for an anti depressant that no teenager should ever be given! (By that time I had worked in a pharmacy for almost 3 years and at 18 already knew a lot. My files were passed around my city from dr to dr and they’d all see the 1st guys diagnosis. I married had kids and still went to well over 40 MD”s over 40 years. None of them even bothered to get to know me. After my last child at age 37, I was hit full blast! Miserable cronic fatigue (I mean I couldn’t even get up to change my baby’s diaper!)Dental problems,even the toothpaste was hot in my mouth now I uses bubble gum) daily migraines-the kind you have to go to the ER for but a couple hours later they would come back, getting lost while driving in a familiar place. Many, many dr.s put me down saying I was depressed or “Because you;ve worked in a pharmacy, you know what drugs to ask for–to get high. some dr.s yelled at me, some walked me to the door & said don’t come back, etc. Then I had a grand Mal seizure which made some neurologists sit up and pay a tad more attention to me. I had 4 more. Then I read the package insert that cme w the drug, it said may cause seizures. That was the one time in my life that I hadn’t read an insert. The neurologist treated me for MS for 9 years then I bought a book about it. 1/2 way through, I said, this isn’t ME! I skimmed through many books that day & bought one on Fibromyalgia. It hit a nerve. For 2 years I scoured the internet looking up anything that remotly sounded like me from gyone bare syndrome, kashimotos, so so many. 2 long years of tears. One day I found an article that read, Cronic Fatigue syndrome/Fibromyalgia symptoms (a few say that but this is the one when downloaded is 4 full pages long! I read it in awe. I was validated. I copies all my research marched down to that dr. in his fancy Orange County office sat down and said”read this” he looked it over and through his accent said, well. I suppose you have this then. I asked him to write on his rx pad that I did indeed have this, just as a validation for me. He laughed, laughed and said well OK. I said thanks so much, see ya. I never went back to that man again. I’d spent 18 years of my life in bed, ate meals there, my youngest grew up seeing me… Read more »


I am so glad to read about continuing research on fibromyalgia. I have had fibromyalgia for over 20 years. But I have not had pain in my hands or feet until the last 3 years (plantar fasciitis now off and on, and carpal tunnel syndrome). I’ve read fibro patients’ discussions on forums and read the latest info on fibro for years but do not find people talking so much about pain in hands and feet. Mostly it’s the back, neck, shoulders, or hips. My fibro pain started in my upper back. Did all the patients in your study have palm sensitivity and pain? If they didn’t, were they still thought to have this nerve fiber disfunction? Thank you for focusing on Fibromyalgia research.

Cressie Todd

I was 30 when FM began, now I am 40 and It is just getting worse with each passing year. I am on so many meds it scares me. I have a daughter that is 16 and has depression and my marriage has been extremely stressful for 18 long years…my family gives me little support and some days I feel so alone I just lay in bed and pray for a cure. the disease seems to be a little different for each person but we all have one thing in common, “PAIN” I look in the mirror and see a young woman but feel as if I were 80. I am fortunate that my husband supports us financially and have been a stay at home mom. but the past 2 yrs. has been the very worse…how could I be getting worse? We are in medical debt from the testing. All of them coming back normal. insurance companies will not take me and I have been turned down for disability. The medications a month are breaking us…There is no help in sight just the fear of someday not being able to afford the Dr. visits and most of all my medications. God bless us all from this disabling and horrific disease. Thank you to all the people who post and to the Doctors who care. There is Hope…

Mike Koefoed

I was told I had Fibro 3 years ago I suffered a minor car accident. I have seen all kinds of midical experts who discounted slipped discs or back issues. However the doctors suergery I was in basically told me it was all in my head and gave me enough medication to put a rhino to sleep and told me I needed to take whatever I needed… Needless to say I moved doctors and thankfully I found someone who knew about Fibro. After a long journey I am now able to function almost normally thanks to Morphine patches and over the counter pain relief. I also made changes in my personal life, eating differently and setting aside time to do sweet F.A.. Another thing I do is go to the gym, it causes me so much pain when doing the actual workout but afterwards and for the next 2 days my pain eases… unsure why that all has elped but I have gone from not being able to pick my sons up to being almost normal as my wife so lovingly states.. Any cure would be most welcome as being on Morphine does have negetive side effects…


Im a 19 year old male, doctor recentley told me I could possibley have fibromyalgia.I was first worried about muscle twitches all over my body,recentley less frequent.I also had several other odd symptoms,loud noise sensitivity, ringing ears, irritability, cracking/popping joints(not much aching), some vision problems, deep muscle soreness/pain in almost all over the body. Thankfully it doesn’t seem as severe as others, the fatigue isnt debilitating, some days are better than others,staying positive, praying it doesnt get worse. I’ve found that staying active, eating more and well does seem to help(150 pounds btw). Looking back I had an overly stressed childhood through highschool, had anxiety/depression issues. I also think genetics could have caused it, my mom has had lots of depression issues.


I’ve had severe fibro for over half my life, and yes, the pain is absolutely unbearable! I haven’t had a pain-free moment since the age of 18, I know it’s hard to believe. Thank God for my sweet, understanding hubby and my equally sweet mother, always there for me to provide support. This disease has robbed me of my livelihood and the ability to have children, as well as the ability to have a social life. I know this is inherited, as my grandmother had it. Many people think it’s all in your head, but my muscles are hard as rocks, and nothing I do seems to help, despite being on high doses of pain meds.
Thanks doctors for your good work- does your research explain why we have extreme muscle stiffness, and will you be devising a treatment or medication?


I am so pleased to see there is focus on research for Fibromyalgia! I’ve had it for 40 years. I am a prime example of pain at its worst. Besides the Fibro, I also have a spinal birth defect and an organic brain disorder that does not allow me to get a full “REM” sleep, among other symptoms mostly related to pain, CFS, migraine headaches & ACM just to name a few. I am unable to take anti-inflammatory drugs of any kind due to allergies. But, after all of the years of having “chronic pain” I have reached a happy medium by using opiates for maintenance. It allows me to have some quality to my life. Unfortunately, with the new laws passing re: the maximum dose of opiates allowed daily for “chronic pain”, (the lawmakers believe they are going to get prescription drugs “off the streets” that way, and decrease the deaths from overdoses) I have had my dose that was making me functional for the first time in many years, CUT IN HALF!! I am 62 years old and have never been in trouble with the law for anything, have never had my medical files flagged for ANY reason, and have documentation going back 30 years re: the chronic pain I’ve been diagnosed with by several doctors. I just don’t know what they expect patients to do for their pain! We are being punished for the people that are using these medications illegally, so therefore having what quality of life we did have taken away from us!
So, I pray that these new discoveries and studies will be the break through that needs to happen to improve the lives of us and our families that suffer daily from this horrible ailment! Thank you for your many hours of hard work!

Sandra C.

I’ve had Fibro since I’m 28, and am now 67. I used to be told that it was psychological or “how is your marriage?” How humiliating it was and how much pain I was in 24/7. Pain killers scared me after a while; I didn’t want to become addicted. I’ve suffered more than half my life and to read that I’m finally acknowledged is a feeling like no other. I’m not a hypochondriac, I’m not “too sensitive” … I have Fibromyalgia and its real.

Barbara Schley

Just want to know when there is a medicine for it that really works. I hurt so bad!!! Thank you


Please keep me informed as to new treatments that actually do work! I am on pain meds that help quite a lot, but not completely. I sleep a LOT and it seems that one day I am pretty good, but the next day is not so good.
I have been told that fibro is also a form of arthritis, and it seems that with both of these conditions, pain is certainly the main problem!
Oh, to be able to face life without drugs and without pain again! I wonder if a traumatic happening, such as a fall, a car crash or something that is not the norm is the cause of the sudden onset of this disease? It is cause for thought and I am grateful that research is finally being done on the behalf of the many people who all suffer from fibromyalgia. Thank you so much!

Barb Searle

Ok I will miss out my story because it’s the same as everyone elses but – could you please repeat that thing again about it changing how we ‘Look’ ? ????
I think if you are having probs with Doctors taking you seriously then you need to tell them off! Doctors spend enough decades getting their credentials & get enough money from us so should have no excuse not to ‘know’ what people are suffering. Nor should they get away telling you ‘its all in your head’! If you have one of those I suggest you take a copy this article on your next visit at least – or report them. I live in the UK and one of my docs – after trying just three drugs, (out of the millions on the market) said there’s “nothing more” he can do!!. I don’t want to hear this unless I’m dying so will be asking for a refund of my NHS lifetime salary contributions to them!

I have been very physical and active all my life , After coming to UK and finding my biological mother I discovered that my whole family has osteoarthritis in hips and knees. Was then doing cleaning at college lifting tables, chairs, hovering , mopping etc. .Then developed plantar facilities had injection in foot, Then had pain in elbows was told it was tennis elbow, again had injections, then pain in knees was told osteoarthritis in both knees ,Was told to do with menopause .Then my whole body shut down. My ankles, wrists. shoulders etc. was in agony .Diagnosed with fibromyalgia have suffered ever since yet doctor is adamant I can work.

They say “its all in our head” cause this disease does make us look crazy. I’ve had more pain and idiosyncratic affects in the last 25 yrs of suffering with this mess than most have had in 10 lifetimes.
Having my hormones tested and correcting what was out of sync helped me the most, as my onset came with menopause. Also my stress level for many yrs prior to that was unbelievable and greatly contributed to FM. I think many sufferers have had a stressful time or accident before onset.
I personally have never had a great deal of pain in hands, but I do have thumb pain I attribute to arthritis. I also had an onset of arthritic conditions of the fingers, but this cleared up with hormones.

I never had anything similar as fibromyalsia until I got hit by a big truck with product in the back of his vehicle and knocked me across two lanes of hwy. And I get in so much pain it has began to make me a little more nervous than I can handle at times, don’t know if it’s because my meds. doesn’t work as good anymore after so many years or what, but have noticed pain being so bad recently it’s made me shake or quiver a little more than usual when I don’t have anything to be nervous about except the pain tollerence that I can or can’t handle.

Mitch Lambdin

As a 53 year old male with Fibro, ME/CFS, and more, this raises some interesting questions. Most importantly to me is: How does this affect the previous correlations between Small Fiber Neuropathy and Fibromyalgia? SFN causes a LOSS of nerve endings at the outermost layer of skin, as I understand it. I have been shown positive through biopsies of my ankle and thigh. Do the findings in this article contradict that prior thinking, or are the two issues separate?
Definitely worth keeping an eye on. Perhaps in follow- up studies they’ll look for a few male test subjects, in a reasonable proportion. :/
Thanks for the information and the research!

i have researched my family tree and found american indian and english royalty…wondering if there is something to heritage or dna that cancause fibromyalgia?
i too was in a car wreck that caused nonstop kneepain, my back hips and shoulder neck and ribs will not stay in place. it got extremely worse after i overworked doing heavy lifting for an entire day straight to the point i couldnt move the next day and pulled my trapezius muscle. i have always had some back pain which got worse after kids, and had been in car accidents before that even. my skin stings especially where i had stitches on my finger from a cut washing dishes many years ago. i used to be quite a bit more active but now feel lazy on days i have a lot of pain everywhere, been told its all in my head, diagnosed with fibromyalgia, i still try to get a lot done, but is to the point after a day of doing things i need a day to rest in pain. chiropractor seems to adjust me which helps me stand up straighter when i leave each visit and helps some but not enough.pain management specialist told me to try something new i enjoy. i ttried painting and found out i am an artist. also enjoy photograpy. still cant move today…just looking at my to do list knowing i wont be doing it today! our bodies and mind are amazingly powerful if we use positive thinking always and positive statements such as i can move today! but i have a choice and choose to rest while in pain. ;). i can also choose to take a rest because i deserve it as a workaholic who accomplishes a lot on days with less pain.

Sandra Weidner

It would be great, but being that I was in the medical field, I would love to see a bigger study to prove this. Mine FMS was DX back to when I was 9 and had a viral infection. This just doesn’t explain well enough to me that it is the cause of my pain.


This is interesting information though it seems a big leap of faith to say this is the reason for all of our symptoms.

An earlier post mentioned not having all of the symptoms discussed in the piece and having other symptoms, not mentioned. This research is just another piece of the bigger puzzle that is not yet finished.

I can only pray that this research will continue, I am so relieved to see new medical information on what is going on to so many of us who suffer with this insidious disease. Many people, even those that Love us dearly can never truly understand how we feel with what is ravaging our bodies. The pain is so unbearable and yet we have to bear it, the fear is so deep and so real, never knowing when or what will set it off to another extreme flareup, so that we live in fear. After having our bodies fighting this extreme pain, we also have a follow up of such extreme fatigue that even the thought of trying to do our daily duties, exhaust us. But we choose to never give up the fight, to believe that some day we pray there will be a cure or at least a treatment so we may be able to have our lives back.. This is a real disease and finally most people are not only believing it..someone in their lives are living with it. We will prevail, the dis believers can just go to he!!


Fibromyalgia is genetic and runs in my family. Grandma, Mother, Aunt, Sister, myself and my son have it. The best book I’ve read is “What your Doctor May Not Tell You About Fibromyalgia” by Dr. St. Amand. My son and I are using the protocol explained in this book. My son has greatly improved in five months of treatment and I am also improving using the protocol described in this book.

Debbie Abbott

I’m still confused. Isn’t this finding a symptom rather than a cause? What CAUSES the enlarged blood vessels in the hands?? I was perfectly normal until I had a car accident, so how does a car accident cause this to happen?


Please keep researching – there are days pain just seems to take over my entire body. There are some nights I need to change night shirts 3 times a night. Even during the day. Finding the summer heat is bothering me more this year. Have stress that may be adding to this also.
Along with taking for shots a day for diabetes.


I have the same issue, which is probably why it took so long to get my diagnosis. To go with the fibro, I have degen disc disease (I’m 34) and have had a slipped disc in L4-L5 that led to surgery. The entire time I had doctors focus on that area, which has been a problem since ’98. I don’t have sore hands at all either. None of the fibro pain, for me, goes higher then just below belt level. The only way I was confirmed to have fibro was by a university neurologist doing skin plug tests, thinking that it may be that after exhausting all other leads. At the time, everyone was thinking it was linked to a severe copper deficiency that I had. Only after the levels stabilizing (after copper infusions) for 4 months did he try the skin plug test. That is partly why I think we should concentrate on concise testing right off. I know a cure, or at least treatment, would be nice but I’m under no illusions that it will happen anytime soon.

Kathy Smith

I have had Fibromyalgia for nine years now, not associated with any other disorder. My family practioner recognized my symptoms immediately, ran me through the gamut of tests and referred me to a rheumatologist for confirmation of the diagnosis. However, I’m confused. Fibromyalgia does not affect the joints, it is not an arthritis. I have never had sore hands and have never been affected by the weather other than the warmer it is, the better I feel, and being cold, not cold weather, makes me ache. How would this new information help those of us without the issues described in the article?

Judi Sandidge

I am a little confused about this all being “the reason” for Fibromyalgia. I thought we already had the reason. That it comes from the brain…affecting all the nerves in our body. I was diagnosed in the late 70s when it was called Fibrocitis. I have been through test after test and on meds after meds. They all seem to just take the edge off my pain. I am grateful for that! However, it sounds like there needs to be a lot more research done before there is proof in this newly-found discovery. One thing that is good is I don’t seem to have try to explain what Fibromyalgia is to everyone, like I use to. At least more people believe it exhists!

Martie Paul

I’ve been praying and asked everybody to pray for a cure for all of us suffering in pain caused by Fibro.. I want to thank the researces that are doing this amazing work searching for answers. Please Drs find a cure for us to relief the pain. Thank you, may God bless


I want to add onto the big relief band. I had a problem with my mother in law trying to convince my wife that I was somehow faking or, it was in my head. I was so relieved, in a sense, when I finally nailed it down to small fiber fibromyalgia 3 weeks ago, after this starting in early 2006. It helped also explain chronic fatigue, terrible hot flashes and all the other things that come with it.

Hopefully we can all see some sort of treatment soon. At the very least, a concise way of diagnosing it, along with better informing those doctors about the symptoms and issues that come with it. Going through years of doctors, treatments, false diagnosis and being told you are fine is hell.

This is interesting information to say the least. Now come up with an answer to relieve these painful symptoms. For 10 years I have had such severe pain I had to give up my nursing career and take medications that change my ability to function in life.

What a wonderful discovery – and the impact it will have on treatment! I’m hoping they are also including Sjogren’s Syndrome in their new studies as “we” deal with a lot of pain also. Sign me up for the study! Sjogren’s and PTSD.


This is such a huge breakthrough! All FMS patients are rejoicing that an actual physical cause has been found for our pain. We have been told “it’s all in your head” and we have known that wasn’t true for years, but had nothing to back that up with. Now we do! Thank you to these doctors and researchers for their hard work and all I can say is keep it up!!! Let’s find a cure!

Joshua Richards

Just wanting to be kept up to date with new research add it comes out.

John Quintner, Rheumatologist

The findings may explain dermatographia, in which the skin responds with exaggerated wheal and flare to non-noxious mechanical stimulation. This phenomenon can be associated with chronic widespread pain. However, in my opinion the authors of the paper, and the editorialist who commented upon their work, appear to be indulging in wild speculation.

This is just great! I am so hopeful that there will be break throughs in spondyloarthritis studies:)

Thank God. For so long now I have been mistreated by coworkers and family members as well as my doctor. I’ve been told that I’m “faking”, “just lazy” , and “nuts”. I know my pain is real and I’m so glad that someone is working on proving it. Thank you.

Kristi Ramirez

I am hopeful that you find a treatment that is effective for FMS Savella has given me some relief but it is my last thing I have had to try. Please work fast and hard. If my doctors would let me be in any of your testing I would be willing to help. Thanks for all your hard work