There are as many as 15 million Americans suffering the chronic disease fibromyalgia, a mysterious—and often doubted—pain condition that primarily affects middle-aged women who are also suffering from an anxiety or stress disorder. Although it frequently strikes people with a mental condition, fibromyalgia is not psychosomatic. However, some patient advocates believe that one reason it is often met with skepticism from doctors is because it so frequently afflicts women, and there is a long and troubling history of male doctors dismissing complaints of female patients, or suspecting them of merely "wanting attention." With fibromyalgia, this skepticism is compounded by there being no clear physical cause of the syndrome and it being difficult to diagnose objectively.
However, recent research is making it clearer that there is an actual disease, that the symptoms are not simply psychosomatic or invented, and that there may be a way to observe signs of the disease beyond merely asking the patient what he or, more often, she feels—an notoriously unreliable diagnostic technique even in patients whom doctors consider credible. Most research on fibromyalgia has linked it to difficulties with correctly processing pain signals from he nerve endings, leading to increased sensitivity—touches that people without fibromyalgia might not even notice are experienced by patients as intensely painful. A team of Swedish researchers has found that the brain areas that process pain have abnormally few connections with other parts in fibromyalgia patients. This means that the brain may not recognize touch properly, and treat it as pain.
In fact, it isn’t only pain signals that are disrupted. Reward sensations also appear to be affected. The reward signals are lessened as the pain response is heightened, studies suggest. In addition, other perceptual systems are often dyfunctional in fibromyalgia patients. Sight and sound are hampered as well as touch. The researchers who discovered this believe that fibromyalgia occurs when he developing brain doesn’t notice these common sensory inputs, and never learns to correct for them. In people without fibromyalgia much of this fades into the background, like zeroing out a kitchen scale. When this zeroing out never occurs, people end up excessively sensitive to these signals.