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Exercise Improves Perceived Pain in Fibromyalgia Patients

Dr. Brian Walitt

Dr. Brian Walitt, director of Georgetown University Medical Center's Fibromyalgia Evaluation and Research Center, says brain function is more streamlined in fibromyalgia patients after they exercise.

November 14, 2011 – The area of the brain responsible for pain control and cognitive performance decreased after fibromyalgia patients took part in an exercise regimen following a medication holiday, according to a study at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC).

The researchers found that brain functioning is more streamlined after exercise because fewer of the brain’s resources are devoted to processing pain.

The study, presented at the Society of Neuroscience’s annual meeting, Neuroscience 2011, used functional MRI scans to assess changes in the brain.

Pain Processing

“The decreased brain activity we see in the area of cognition suggests that the brain is working more efficiently,” explains Dr. Brian Walitt, senior author and director of GUMC’s Fibromyalgia Evaluation and Research Center. “We also see less brain activity in areas responsible for pain processing which might be aiding that efficiency.”

Walitt cautions that more research needs to be conducted before suggesting a change in clinical care for fibromyalgia.

Improved Well-Being

Memory and pain typically worsen in patients after their doctors tell them to stop taking their medication for a while.

But after six weeks of exercise, patients reported an improvement in overall well-being.

Fibromyalgia is a medical disorder characterized by widespread pain, fatigue, disordered sleep and cognitive changes but which has no apparent cause.

Aerobic Exercise

“In conditions like this, the body perceives something by mistake,” Walitt says.  The pain is not psychosomatic, but is real and likely produced by the central nervous system, he says.

Walitt and his research team and gave 18 female fibromyalgia patients a baseline fMRI to assess their well-being and pain while they were on medication.

The team then monitored the patients with additional fMRIs after they stopped taking their medications. The final scan on the volunteers took place after they engaged in a six-week exercise regiment of three 30-minute sessions of aerobic exercise each week.

“What we see is a less interference by pain activity which could be contributing to the decrease in activity in the memory section,” Walitt says. “Basically, the brain is using less energy for the same task.”

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