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Focus on Fibromyalgia Syndrome

16 December 2013

The University of Ulster has teamed up with Arthritis Research UK to explore new ways of treating and researching fibromyalgia – a life-crippling disease that affects millions of people worldwide.

Leading researchers and clinicians from across Europe met in Belfast earlier this month to discuss the management of this complex, chronic pain syndrome, which causes untold misery for patients.

Sufferers of fibromyalgia endure extreme muscle pain and tenderness combined with overwhelming fatigue, sleeplessness and possible psychological problems such as anxiety and depression.

There is currently no known cure for the disease but researchers at the University of Ulster in collaboration with the University of Seville, Spain, have been spearheading the use of gentle exercise techniques that could greatly improve the quality of life for fibromyalgia patients.

Dr Joseph McVeigh, from the School of Health Sciences, in the Centre for Health and Rehabilitation Technologies (CHaRT), at Ulster, said: “Fibromyalgia syndrome causes a huge impact on the lives of sufferers and their families, but unfortunately it is often regarded as a ‘Cinderella’ condition, receiving little research funding or attention.

“This chronic pain condition affects approximately two per cent of the population, with women affected six times more often than men.

“Current management of the syndrome is frequently poor with patients obtaining little relief from medications. Guidelines advocate non-pharmacological treatments such as physiotherapy, advice and education.”

Dr McVeigh’s research focuses on improving the quality of life of people with fibromyalgia syndrome. In particular, Dr McVeigh and his colleagues in the Centre for Health and Rehabilitation Technologies, are examining the management of fatigue and sleep dysfunction, which, in addition to pain, are two of the most debilitating aspects of fibromyalgia.

This current research builds on previous studies conducted by the University of Ulster and the University of Seville, which demonstrated that patients who undertook a prolonged, 24-week exercise programme, consisting of gentle aerobic exercise in combination with strengthening exercise, improved their quality of life and function.

Patients with fibromyalgia, over a three year period were exposed to six months of exercise followed by six months without exercise.

Dr McVeigh explained: “This research demonstrated that patients, if properly supported, could engage with prolonged exercise and, importantly, improvements were maintained over the three year period.

“In bringing this work forward researchers at the University of Ulster aim to focus on fatigue and sleep dysfunction, symptoms which patients have reported as having a major impact on all aspects of their daily lives.

“People with fibromyalgia report fatigue as one of the most debilitating aspects of the condition. This fatigue is not like the normal tiredness that we all experience, rather patients describe a completely overwhelming feeling of exhaustion that renders normal functional activities impossible.

“We are very hopeful that our future research will bring much needed help to those who have to live with this debilitating and often misunderstood condition.”

Dr McVeigh added: “We are extremely grateful to Arthritis Research UK for funding the ‘think tank’ event in Belfast, bringing together an exceptionally talented group of rheumatologists, physiotherapists, sports scientists, biochemists, occupational therapists, sleep neurophysiologists, statisticians and epidemiologists to map out future research directions.”