Fibromyalgia and Genetics
Relatives of people with Fibromyalgia are eight times more likely to develop the disease than people who have no family history of the disease (Arnold et al., 2004). A 1999 study of 40 families – all of whom had at least two first-degree relatives with a diagnosis of Fibromyalgia – identified a gene that possibly plays a role in causing the disease. At the time, the authors noted that the findings were just preliminary and that further studies were needed to determine if any association was true (Yunus et al., 1999).
A larger study on genetic links to Fibromyalgia was conducted in 2004 evaluated 78 Fibromyalgia patients and 533 of their first-degree relatives. The study also looked at 40 patients who had rheumatoid arthritis and 272 of their first-degree relatives for comparison. The findings were quite significant. The researchers found that relatives of Fibromyalgia patients were much more likely to have Fibromyalgia themselves, and they were also much more likely to report a greater number of “tender points” (localized areas of pain usually around the joints). The authors also found that the patients (and their relatives) who had Fibromyalgia were more likely to have a major mood disorder, such as manic depression (Arnold et al., 2004).
These studies – and others – support the observation that Fibromyalgia runs in families and point toward a possible genetic cause for the disease; however, despite these convincing findings, the exact cause of Fibromyalgia is not known. For many individuals, triggering events such as stress, trauma, infection, psychological factors and environmental factors may play a greater role than genetics, or, they may work in combination with a genetic mutation to cause the onset of Fibromyalgia (Buskila et al., 2007). In fact, many researchers are confident that no single genetic mutation will be found to be the sole cause of Fibromyalgia, and they emphasize that genes and environmental triggers likely work together to cause the disease.
Nevertheless, researchers are working hard to better understand the relationship between Genetics and Fibromyalgia, as doing so may one day lead to better treatment options. For example, genes that influence the brain’s ability to transmit pain signals to the body have received a great deal of attention (Ablin et al., 2006). These pain signals are transmitted by chemicals called neurotransmitters (examples of which include serotonin and dopamine). But these pain transmission systems are only one potential genetic cause, as researchers continue to uncover more candidate genes every day. Furthermore, as researchers learn more about other conditions that frequently occur in people who have Fibromyalgia – such as manic depression and irritable bowel syndrome – the understanding of how genes are involved in the development of Fibromyalgia also improves.
It is important to understand that while genetics plays a clear role in the development of Fibromyalgia, exactly how it does so is difficult to determine. The current information available regarding genetics and Fibromyalgia is only sufficient to help doctors and researchers know who may be more susceptible to developing the disease. Researchers are hopeful that as the understanding of the role of genes in Fibromyalgia improves, it will lead to more effective treatment options for patients.