April 8 Jan Murphy committed suicide last summer because she could no longer live with a disease that many doctors still don't believe exists. She had fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that made a cool breeze on her skin feel like fire and caused every part of her body to ache. After CT scans and MRIs showed no medical reason for her pain, Murphy turned to Dr. Jack Kevorkian for a final solution.
"When you start hearing there is no hope, no treatment, and no cure, over and over, you lose your will to fight," Murphy wrote in a eulogy that was read at her funeral. "What most people saw of me was a shell of what was going on inside."
What exactly was going on with Murphy and other fibromyalgia patients has long been a controversial matter in the medical profession. Many doctors thought that fibromyalgia was a mental health problem, with no physical cause.
Until five years ago, grassroots fibromyalgia groups were virtually chased out of medical conferences when they tried to spread the word about the syndrome. Now, researchers at the University of Alabama have uncovered proof that what patients like Murphy experience isn't a psychological disorder, but rather is caused by abnormalities in the brain and central nervous system.
Sensory Alarms Stuck
The researchers found that fibromyalgia patients have significantly less blood flow to the parts of their brains that deal with pain. And compared to healthy people, they also have twice the level of a brain chemical called Substance P, which helps nervous system cells communicate with each other about painful stimuli. Elevated P levels may actually produce the higher levels of pain throughout the body .
Dr. Laurence Bradley, a pain management specialist who led the research, presented his findings at a National Institutes of Health conference on pain and gender today. About 90 percent of fibromyalgia sufferers are women, though researchers don't know why.
"It's like a burglar alarm which normally goes off in the body in response to certain kinds of signals," Bradley explains. "But in patients with fibromyalgia, benign signals are making them go off as well."
Bradley, who estimates that 8 percent of all women suffer from fibromyalgia, says his research is comforting to those who thought their symptoms meant they were "crazy."
"It was easy for doctors to attribute the pain to psychological disorders," says Bradley, who is also a psychiatrist. "That perception is beginning to change now that we can show distinctly different brain function that is not evident in patients with depression."
Now that the cause of fibromyalgia seems clearer, scientists are searching for better ways to treat the symptoms. One research team is investigating whether antidepressant drugs increase cerebral blood flow. Another is looking at injecting toxins into precise places in the spine to block debilitating pain without causing the numbing side effects of narcotic drugs.
Meanwhile, grassroots groups like the Fibromyalgia Network will continue to pursue funding for more research into the condition. "It feels like being run over by a Mack truck," says network manager Steve Thorson, whose wife has fibromyalgia. "It's a terrible thing to live with. It doesn't go away."
Jan Murphy, for one, wasn't willing to wait. "Please do not think of this as suicide," she wrote, "but as a self-deliverance from a life that became too unbearable to live."