Professor: Fibromyalgia may shrink the brain By Diane Chun Staff writer Published: Friday, May 15, 2009 at 6:01 a.m. Last Modified: Thursday, May 14, 2009 at 11:17 p.m. For those who suffer from fibromyalgia, the unrelenting pain affects every aspect of daily life. Now research shows that, over time, chronic pain can actually shrink the brain. Dr. Roland Staud of the University of Florida College of Medicine will explain this and other new directions in understanding and treating fibromyalgia Saturday at the McKnight Brain Institute. "We've found a reduction in gray matter in 11 different areas of the brain (in chronic pain patients). We cannot yet determine whether this is a cause or a consequence of fibromyalgia," Staud said. An estimated three to six of every 100 Americans suffer from fibromyalgia, marked by continuous, unexplainable pain throughout the body. The cause is unknown and diagnosis is difficult. The pain is often accompanied by fatigue, depression, digestive disorders, anxiety, sleeping problems, cognitive impairment and other symptoms, according to the National Fibromyalgia Association. Studies have shown that the loss of gray matter was three times greater in fibromyalgia patients than in normal test subjects. The longer the chronic pain had lasted, the more gray matter was lost. "It shows the considerable truth of the old maxim 'Use it or lose it,' " Staud noted. The rheumatologist and professor of medicine is among a group of researchers seeking to understand the elusive condition. The finding that the brains of fibromyalgia patients are actually getting smaller is troubling, Staud said. "We want to see if the loss can be reversed or if the decline can be stopped at this point," he said. Stress is a critical factor in chronic pain, he explained, and if a person has continual pain, it results in a decline in brain function. Staud speculates that as brain tissue shrinks, it may make that person more prone to pain, as well. "We want to identify and treat fibromyalgia patients as early as possible," he said. "Stress reduction is an essential approach in order to succeed."