Whether you’re living with fibromyalgia or you’re close family with someone who is, you’ve probably asked yourself, “Is fibromyalgia genetic?” Fears of passing on chronic pain can influence major life decisions like having children, so it’s important to have clarity on this issue.
And well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that parents with fibromyalgia often do not pass it on to their children. The bad news is that there is a clear genetic component in determining your risk for developing fibromyalgia, since it tends to run in families. If members of your immediate family have fibromyalgia, your risk is several times higher than someone whose immediate family does not carry this chronic illness.
The genetic research that has led to these conclusions isn’t just good for determining if fibromyalgia is genetic, though. It has also led to significant breakthroughs that can tell us a lot about how fibromyalgia develops, and that information can help you as you evaluate your own risk or consider family planning options.
Why Does Fibromyalgia Genetic Research Matter?
Already, genetic research has shown light on some of the secrets of how fibromyalgia develops. Namely, several genes have been identified that could be responsible for the genetic element of fibromyalgia. Why does that matter? Well, many of these genes have an association with depression and anxiety, which could explain why antidepressants to treat fibromyalgia have a history of efficacy.
Of course, there are other benefits of genetic research, including:
- If fibromyalgia has more than one cause, genetic study may eventually be able to identify what has caused your fibromyalgia and offer appropriate treatment or, in the future, a cure.
- New prevention strategies may develop as we continue to grow our understanding of how fibromyalgia develops, which could eventually prevent families from passing it on.
- Clear, genetic diagnostic markers could help people with fibromyalgia avoid being told that they’re imagining their pain. While all individuals with chronic pain should be respected regardless of whether or not an outside test can verify pain, the unfortunate reality is that genetic proof would lead to better treatment for many people with fibromyalgia.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, treatments that target specific genetic causes will likely be more effective than treatments aimed at treating symptoms. This could lead to better, more comprehensive relief of fibromyalgia symptoms.
Each item on this list is important, because right now, fibromyalgia presents substantial challenges to leading a fulfilling life. It’s hard to diagnose correctly, its treatments are less effective for some people, and there is no cure in sight. If there is a path forward, that path likely relies on continued genetic research.
However, for now, we live in the present. So let’s take a look at what genetic research has already uncovered about the genetic aspect of fibromyalgia.
Genetic Risks of Fibromyalgia
Prior to genetic research, many people noticed that fibromyalgia seemed to run in families. This anecdotal evidence led to genetic study, which is how we now know exactly how much having a family member with fibromyalgia affects your own risk. If someone in your immediate family has fibromyalgia, then your risk for developing it automatically increases eight-and-a-half fold.
A 2017 literature review examined the current body of work pointing to genetics as a cause of fibromyalgia, and it seems clear that genes play a causal role. Specifically:
- One study examined fibromyalgia prevalence in parents and siblings of someone who had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Of all the participants, 52% showed clinical signs of fibromyalgia, even though none of them had ever been diagnosed before. Another 22% showed no fibromyalgia symptoms, but their muscle consistency was abnormal and consistent with muscle developed by those with fibromyalgia. In total, then, 74% of participants showed physical or symptomatic signs of fibromyalgia, even though they’d never been diagnosed.
- Another study examined how and if mothers passed fibromyalgia on to their children. Among mothers who had fibromyalgia, 28% of their children also displayed fibromyalgia symptoms. By examining the differences and similarities among siblings, researchers concluded that genetics, rather than environmental factors, were the root cause of fibromyalgia.
- However, environmental factors can still be a factor in developing fibromyalgia. One study examined fibro rates among blood relatives of people with fibromyalgia compared with spouses of people with fibromyalgia. The idea was that if spouses showed higher fibro rates, then that signaled that environmental factors were more important, whereas higher rates among blood relatives would show the opposite. And while 26% of blood relatives showed signs of fibromyalgia, only 19% of spouses showed similar signs. This tells us that environmental factors are important, but they seem to be less powerful than genetic factors.
Clearly, the research proves that fibromyalgia is hereditary. However, aside from lifestyle issues like diet and exercise, there are other factors that can affect your risk for developing this chronic illness.
Other Causes of Fibromyalgia
In addition to hereditary factors, several other areas can impact your risk of developing this condition. Keep in mind that these factors should be considered in addition to (rather than instead of) your existing genetic risk.
- Age: There is no “right” age to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia, but it’s most common between ages 20 and 50, also known as the “childbearing years.”
- Sex: 90% of fibro cases are diagnosed in those who were assigned female at birth. Moreover, hormonal changes like menopause and gynecological surgeries may trigger an onset of fibro symptoms, which further leads to the high diagnosis rate.
- Sleep Disorders: The relationship between pain and insomnia is tricky, since it’s hard to determine which one causes the other. However, regardless of the cause, long-term sleep disorders can increase your risk of developing fibromyalgia.
- Mental Distress: Remember how some of the genes that may cause fibro are also known to cause depression and anxiety? Well, there is some evidence that it works the other way, too. Traumatic events and long-term psychological stress have an association with higher risk of this condition.
- Chronic Pain Due to Autoimmune Disorders: When an autoimmune disorder leads to chronic pain, the mechanism may be the immune response attacking its own body, which leads to many pain signals being sent to the brain. This constant pain can make the brain more sensitive, which may also lead to fibromyalgia symptoms.
As you can see, there are a lot of factors that can lead to fibromyalgia, and many of those factors are outside of anyone’s control. For now, genetic treatments of fibromyalgia are still developing. So the best thing to do is arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible to assess your own risk and make the right choices for yourself.
If you believe you’re at a high risk of developing fibromyalgia, or you’re presenting with symptoms, speak to a doctor who specializes in these issues. Finding the right pain doctor can be hard, but the benefits of having a provider on your side are well worth the effort.
As a final note, remember that you are more than your genetics. There are people with no risk factors who develop fibromyalgia, and people with several major risk factors who never show a single symptom. You should not panic or self-diagnose, but use this information to rationally assess your risk and keep yourself and your family safe.
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