Did you know that your nervous system has more than 90,000 miles of sensations! 

Wow!  That’s amazing but not so if you have fibromyalgia and especially if you’re suffering with heightened sensitivities and sensations go through the roof.  Also to consider, is the medical research identifying fibromyalgia’s association with the central nervous system.

What is the nervous system?

The nervous system is composed of a network of hundreds of nerves and billions of cells that carry messages to and from the brain, spinal cord and the rest of the body, sent by chemical and electrical changes in the cells (neurons), that make up the nerves.

This is your body’s main communication network and together with your endocrine system (hormones), it maintains and controls various functions in the body, as well as helping you to interact with your surroundings, so it needs to be healthy!

Simply put and getting through the mist, the nervous system is made up of two main parts, the central nervous system (CNS), consisting of the brain and spinal cord which is where pain signals are transmitted.  The other part consists of the peripheral nervous system (PNS).

On the subject of fibromyalgia, we’ll stay focussed on the peripheral nervous system and the reason it’s important if you are a sufferer. 

Keeping it simple, the PNS consists of the somatic nervous system which controls all voluntary muscular systems and there’s the autonomic nervous system(ANS).  This branch keeps various systems in the body functioning but it does it without your conscious control.  It’s the ANS that plays a significant part in fibromyalgia and here’s why:-

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is divided into two parts, the sympathetic (SNS) which activates the arousal state and prepares the body for the fight-or-flight in stressful situations.  You can think of this as your superpower specially designed to keep you safe from the threat of danger.

(Nowadays, threats of danger can appear in many guises, for instance fear of viruses, or waiting for test results and your thoughts alone can create internal havoc, as well as experiencing emotional or physical pain etc.) 

The counterbalance to your superpower comes from the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which activates the calm relaxed state and normalizes things when the danger has passed.  You can think of this as your chilled out self and when the body is in “rest and digest” mode.

Basically, these are how we have evolved as humans primarily to live in a relaxed state and be ready to react to danger when needed and ideally there should be a balance.  When all things are normal the parasympathetic nervous system’s role is to keep you from becoming stuck in the fight-or-flight mode.

Unfortunately, we know only too well that this isn’t the case if you have fibromyalgia with its unpredictable nature and fluctuating pain levels, fatigue and various heightened sensitivities, all causing assault on the mind and body!

It’s like no two days are the same, so it’s no wonder it can leave you feeling constantly wired and let’s face it, unsurprisingly, most of us are these days!

What happens instead is that the fight-or-flight (stress response) rarely gets a chance to switch off and remains triggered to some degree.  This means that the “rest and digest” rarely gets a look in and you know what that means for fibromyalgia?  It means more pain, digestion problems, fatigue, poor quality sleep, brain fog and a host of other problems, including a dysfunctional nervous system.

So what happens when you have a dysfunctional nervous system?

Otherwise known as Dysautonomia, a medical umbrella term used to describe various medical conditions that cause irregularities in the autonomic nervous system.  Reminder that it’s the ANS that controls the involuntary unconscious functions of the body, such as:

  • heart rate and blood pressure
  • breathing pattern
  • stimulates flow of saliva
  • contracts the bladder
  • body temperature control
  • stimulates peristalsis and secretion (digestion)
  • stimulates bile release
  • dilation and constriction of the pupils
  • kidney function

This list gives you an indication as to where some of the triggers of common fibromyalgia symptoms come from, ie: shortness of breath, pounding heart, overactive bladder, digestion problems, light sensitivity etc. etc.

Symptoms of dysautonomia

Medical research has identified problems in fibromyalgia related to the central nervous system and the autonomic nervous system.

These include several conditions that fit under the umbrella of dysautonomia, such as IBS, Raynaud’s phenomenon, restless leg syndrome  and Postural tachycardia syndrome (POTS), caused by an abnormal increase in heart rate that occurs after sitting or standing when typical symptoms include dizziness and fainting.

Much like fibromyalgia, many of the symptoms under the umbrella of dysautonomia vary for each person and often mirror each other.    

There’s one particular symptom worth noting called  “sympathovagal”, a term that’s gaining a lot of interest and describes the relationship between the sympathetic nervous system (stress response) and the vagus nerve

So what is the vagus nerve?

What you need to know here in relation to fibromyalgia, is the vagus nerve works alongside the parasympathetic (rest and digest), and within this system it regulates internal organ functions like heart and breathing rate, digestion, reflex activity such as swallowing, gagging and sneezing, pupil dilation and constriction to name a few.

An example of sympathovagal imbalance would be something that is very common to people with fibromyalgia, where emotional distress, stressing or worrying, physically triggers an attack of IBS or a fibromyalgia flare up and abnormal heart rate variability (HRV).

HRV is a fluctuation in time intervals between heart beats occurring in milliseconds. Scientists have identified low HRV in patients with fibromyalgia and that nocturnal heart rate variability could be a potential biomarker for fibromyalgia.

This starts to put pieces of the puzzle together since many people with fibromyalgia experience disruptions in their sleep cycle, resulting in unrefreshing sleep. There is so much evidence related to the health implications of poor-quality sleep and fibromyalgia https://thefibroclinicsouthwest.co.uk/fibromyalgia-and-problems-with-sleep/

Typical symptoms of sympathovagal dysautonomia might include:         

  • anxiety and panic attacks
  • rapid heartbeat
  • general aches and pains
  • fatigue / insomnia
  • dizziness, fainting, poor coordination
  • sweating / temperature irregularities
  • gastronomical problems
  • low blood pressure
  • numbness or tingling
  • visual disturbances

Food for thought isn’t it?  What’s more there’s sufficient evidence that points towards fibromyalgia and dysautonomia are correlated with each other.  However, as to which is the cause of the other, no one really knows.  Similarly with fibromyalgia, there’s no single test, specific cause or treatment for either. 

The good news though, is that you can strengthen the vagus nerve and help to reduce  sympathovagal symptoms and many symptoms under the umbrella of fibromyalgia too!

To conclude, the main point to take away, is that the vagus nerve is a primary component of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and the health of this is vitally important when coping with fibromyalgia.

To find out more on the vagus nerve and how you can increase your own vagal tone, it’s worth checking out related article https://thefibroclinicsouthwest.co.uk/fibromyalgia-and-tuning-into-your-vagus-nerve/Fibromyalgia and the Vagus Nerve.

On a final note, there’s no single treatment for fibromyalgia and it may coexist with other illnesses, affecting each person differently.  Major influencers include medications and side effects, lifestyle choices, mind-set and stress management strategies.

It’s understandable that it might feel difficult to think anything positive about fibromyalgia but there’s sufficient evidence to show that those who practice a healthy lifestyle and take responsibility for their own health to the best of their capabilities, tend to fare better. It’s also reported that having a good understanding of the symptoms and different types of fibromyalgia pain helps to dissipate the fears and worries of a diagnosis.  You can read more about fibromyalgia types of pain here https://thefibroclinicsouthwest.co.uk/fibromyalgia-pain/   

Author Jok Saunders, founder of the Fibro Clinic South West

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