To determine whether abnormalities of peripheral and central nociceptive sensory input processing exist outside areas of spontaneous pain in patients with fibromyalgia (FM) as compared with controls, by using quantitative sensory testing (QST) and a neurophysiologic paradigm independent from subjective reports.
A total of 164 outpatients with FM who were attending a self-management program were invited to participate in the study. Data for 85 patients were available and were compared with those for 40 non-FM controls matched for age and sex. QST was performed using thermal, mechanical, and electrical stimuli at locations of nonspontaneous pain. Pain assessment was 2-fold and included use of subjective scales and the spinal nociceptive flexion reflex (NFR), a specific physiologic correlate for the objective evaluation of central nociceptive pathways. Questionnaires regarding quality of life and the impact of FM were available.
Participants were mainly middle-aged women, with a mean disease duration of 8 years. Between-group differences were significant for neurophysiologic, clinical, and quality of life measures. In patients with FM, peripheral QST showed significantly altered cold and heat pain thresholds, and tolerance to cold pain was radically reduced. The median NFR threshold in patients with FM (22.7 mA [range 17.5–31.7]) was significantly decreased compared with that in controls (33 mA [range 28.1–41]). A cutoff value of <27.6 mA for NFR provided sensitivity of 73% and specificity of 80% for detecting central allodynia in the setting of FM.
Our results strongly, although indirectly, point to a state of central hyperexcitability of the nociceptive system in patients with FM. The NFR can be used to assess central allodynia in FM. It may also help discriminate patients who may benefit from use of centrally acting analgesics.