What Causes Fibromyalgia?

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on August 11, 2021
2 min read

When you get injured, nerve signals travel from the problem spot on your body through your spinal cord to your brain, which senses these signals as pain. It’s a warning that something’s wrong. As you heal, the pain gets better, and in time it goes away.

But if you have fibromyalgia, you hurt all over even when you’re not sick or injured. And the pain doesn’t go away. Some doctors think they know why: a glitch in the way your brain and spinal cord handle pain signals.

When you have fibromyalgia, you may have more cells that carry pain signals than normal. And you may have fewer cells that slow pain signals down. This means your pain volume is always turned up, like music blasting on a radio. The result is that minor bumps and bruises hurt more than they should. And you may feel pain from things that shouldn’t hurt at all.

Doctors aren’t sure why some people get fibromyalgia. Many things could cause the body’s pain signals to go awry. Plus, different people report different things that seemed to trigger their condition. You can even have more than one cause. They can include:

  • Genes. Fibromyalgia seems to run in families. Your parents may pass on genes that make you more sensitive to pain. Other genes can also make you more likely to feel anxious or depressed, which makes pain worse.
  • Other diseases. A painful disease like arthritis or an infection raises your chances of getting fibromyalgia.
  • Emotional or physical abuse. Children who are abused are more likely to have the condition when they grow up. This may happen because abuse changes the way the brain handles pain and stress.
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some people have this mental health problem after a terrible event, like war, a car crash, or rape. These events are also linked to fibromyalgia in some people.
  • Gender. The condition is much more common in women than men. Doctors think this could be related to differences in the way men and women feel and react to pain, as well as how society expects them to respond to pain.
  • Anxiety and depression. These and other mood disorders seem linked to fibromyalgia, though there’s no proof that they actually cause the condition.
  • Not moving enough. The condition is much more common in people who aren’t physically active. Exercise is one of the best treatments for fibromyalgia you already have. It can help turn the pain volume down.