Obesity and Fibromyalgia: a Painful Barrier to Weight Loss?

To anyone regularly dealing with overweight and obese patients, the frequent association between excess weight and chronic musculoskeletal pain is no secret.

This association is particularly true for the rather enigmatic syndrome of fibromyalgia, characterised by the presence of generalized pain in muscle and joints, often associated with fatigue, poor sleep, and depression. Patients typically present with exquisite tenderness over discrete anatomical points, commonly referred to as tender points.  While there is still much debate around the exact etiology or even the exact diagnostic criteria (e.g. number of tender points) for fibromyalgia, there is no doubt that the presence of this syndrome can prove a major barrier to weight management.

Indeed, it is not at all clear whether there may in fact be an etiological link between fibromyalgia and obesity. As outlined in a paper by Akiko Okifuji and colleagues from Salt Lake City, UT, published last year in Clinical Rheumatology, 70% of fibromyalgia patients in their study were overweight or obese and presented with elevated levels of IL-6, catecholamines, cortisol, and CRP, all of which are common findings in obese patients. Furthermore, the patients with fibromyalgia, as do obese patients, presented with reduced sleep duration and efficiency. Based on these commonalities, Okifuji and colleagues concluded that excess weight and obesity may well play a role in fibromyalgia and related dysfunction. 

Interestingly, in 2008, Alan Saber and colleagues published an article in Obesity Surgery describing a significant improvement in pain score and points of tenderness in patients with fibromyalgia who underwent laparoscopic Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery. Based on these findings, the authors suggested that weight loss may be an important treatment modality for severely obese patients with this syndrome.

Whether or not less drastic approaches to weight management can provide benefits remains to be seen. Nevertheless, there have been reports of limited response to education, exercise, and psychological interventions. Thus, currently accepted non-pharmacological treatments for fibromyalgia remain rather limited.

Recently, a Cochrane review concluded that duloxetine is efficacious for treating pain in fibromyalgia and another systematic review found evidence that gabapentin and pregabalin can also reduce pain in these patients. 

Nevertheless, fibromyalgia continues to be a common but largely undertreated problem in overweight and obese patients and can often pose a significant barrier to increasing physical activity or modifying ingestive behaviour. 

As blogged before, assessment for muskuloskeletal pain should be a regular and essential feature of any assessment for overweight and obesity. 

I very much look forward to comments from any readers struggling with fibromyalgia or from colleagues on how they manage this debilitating syndrome.

Edmonton, Alberta