Research shows fibromyalgia is likely a condition of the immune system

02 July 2021

Fibromyalgia affects millions of people in the UK and can have a devastating impact on quality of life. It causes pain all over the body, fatigue (fibro fog), disturbed sleep and regular flare-ups where symptoms get even worse.

It most commonly develops between the ages of 25 and 55, although children can also get it.

Fibromyalgia can be hard to diagnose and treatment for the condition is generally focussed on gentle aerobic exercises, and drug and psychological therapies designed to manage pain, although these have proven ineffective in most patients and have left behind an enormous unmet clinical need.

What does this new research tell us?

Research funded by Versus Arthritis at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, in collaboration with the University of Liverpool and the Karolinska Institute, has shown that many fibromyalgia symptoms are likely caused by antibodies that increase the activity of pain-sensing nerves throughout the body.

The study published today in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, demonstrates that antibodies can cause many of the hallmark symptoms of fibromyalgia, including increased pain sensitivity, muscle weakness, reduced movement, and reduced number of small nerve-fibres in the skin that are typical of fibromyalgia.

The results suggests that fibromyalgia is a condition caused by the immune system, rather than the currently held view that fibromyalgia originates in the brain. This discovery could help researchers to develop tests to diagnose fibromyalgia or develop new treatments for people with the condition.

About the project

The researchers injected mice with antibodies from people living with fibromyalgia and observed that the mice rapidly developed fibromyalgia-like symptoms. This included an increased sensitivity to pressure and cold, as well as displaying reduced movement grip strength.

In contrast, mice that were injected with antibodies from healthy people were unaffected, demonstrating that the antibodies cause, or at least are a major contributor to the fibromyalgia symptoms.

How with this research help people with fibromyalgia?

Dr Craig Bullock, Research Discovery and Innovations Lead at Versus Arthritis said:

"Fibromyalgia is a particularly difficult condition to diagnose and manage because its causes are unknown. This research shows that antibodies found in human blood can cause fibromyalgia-like symptoms in mice, suggesting that these antibodies play a crucial role in the condition.

Further research is needed but this offers hope to the millions of people with fibromyalgia that an effective treatment could be found in the relatively near future.”

Dr David Andersson, the study’s primary investigator from King’s IoPPN said:

The implications of this study are profound. Establishing that fibromyalgia is an autoimmune disorder will transform how we view the condition and should pave the way for more effective treatments for the millions of people affected. Our work has uncovered a whole new area of therapeutic options and should give real hope to fibromyalgia patients.

“Previous exploration of therapies has been hampered by our limited understanding of the illness. This should now change.”

Working together

This study was possible thanks to funding from the Medical Research Council (UK), Versus Arthritis, the Liverpool Pain Relief Foundation, the Swedish Research Council, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, a donation from the Lundblad Family for clinical pain research at Karolinska Institute, and other agencies.

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