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Suffer from fibromyalgia? You might be sensory defensive

Tuesday, February 25, 2014 by: Sharon Heller, PhD
Tags: fibromyalgia, hyper sensitivity, fibro fog

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(NaturalNews) Fibromyalgia sufferers experience chronic widespread muscular pain, achiness, poor sleep, and extreme fatigue. Following a sleepless night, sufferers of FM wake up exhausted, their mind in a fog, and their bodies feeling beaten up with intense pain that could last for days, weeks, or even months.

Low sensory threshold

FM sufferers feel intense pain because of a low pain threshold. But it's not just pain. They appear to have a low threshold for multiple sensations including touch, heat, cold, chemicals, light, sound, and smell. In brain imaging studies of FM, nonnoxious sensation activated areas of the brain that modulate responses to pain, indicating distorted sensory processing. In other words, FM sufferers appear to be "sensory defensive," a condition in which a person is hypersensitive and over-responsive to sensations that don't seem to bother others.

Study confirms link between FM and hypersensitivity

Initially, the link between fibromyalgia and sensory defensiveness has come from discussion on informational websites, chat rooms and clinician reports. But research too is confirming a link between FM and multisensory hypersensitivity.
In a study published in Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, researchers compared 27 women with FM to 28 women with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and 28 healthy pain-free women, the control group. Sensory processing was measured using a self-report survey of sensory processing. The survey asked the women if they are sensitive to sensations that do not seem to bother other people or avoid common activities or environments because of smells, tastes, sound, sights, movement challenges, or touch. For example, "I dislike being close to people who wear perfume or cologne," "I leave the room when others are watching TV or ask them to turn it down," or "I am bothered by turtleneck shirts, tight fitting clothes, elastic, nylons, or synthetic material in clothes."

The FM group in this study had higher scores of hypersensitivity across multiple modalities. In particular, scores were higher for taste and smell, auditory, and tactile sensations. The RA and control groups did not differ in reported hypersensitivities. This hypersensitivity may account for the "fibro fog," or slow processing of information common in FM sufferers. When overwhelmed by sensation, your attention is focused on flight or fight and it's difficult to process other information.

FM pain and hypersensitivity - a double whammy

Sensory defensiveness greatly interferes with daily functioning as it leaves you hyperaroused, wired, exhausted, anxious and stressed. To cope, you avoid places and people that overstimulate you and miss out on many typical life activities. Dealing with the pain of fibromyalgia as well adds additional stress, anxiety, and fatigue and further reduces the ability to cope with and enjoy ordinary life.

Help for hypersensitivity

Fortunately, many ways exist to reduce sensory defensiveness. Occupational therapists have been providing effective interventions for sensory defensiveness for more than 50 years. Sufferers can also learn how to implement a "sensory diet" to balance the nervous system so they feel less wired and stressed. Strategies include specific kinds of exercise that tap into the vestibular (balance) and proprioceptive (body awareness) systems, massage, yoga, listening programs, light therapy and the use of essential oils. Implementing such sensory strategies will not only reduce hypersensitivity and pain but increase well being, lift mood, and improve physical health.

Sources for this article include:


Wilbarger, JL, Cook, DB. Multisensory Hypersensitivity in Women With Fibromyalgia: Implications for Well Being and Intervention. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation,2011;92: 653-656.

Cook DB, Lange G, Ciccone DS, Liu W-C, Steffener J, Natelson BH. Functional imaging of pain in patients with primary fibromyalgia. J Rheumatol. 2004;31:364-78.]

About the author:
Sharon Heller, PhD is a developmental psychologist who specializes in books on holistic solutions for anxiety, panic and sensory processing disorder (SPD). She is the author of several popular psychology books including "Uptight & Off Center: How sensory processing disorder throws adults off balance & how to create stability" (Symmetry, 2013), "Anxiety: Hidden Causes, Why your anxiety may not be 'all in your head' but from something physical" (Symmetry, 2011) and "Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight, What to do if you are sensory defensive in an overstimulating world" (HarperCollins, 2002). She can be contacted via email at [email protected] and via her website, www.sharonheller.net. You can also follow her blog at http://sharonhellerphd.blogspot.com

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