Exercise May Improve Memory in Fibromyalgia Patients

Study Shows Physical Activity Helps the Brain Work More Efficiently and Eases Pain

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on November 17, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 17, 2011 -- Exercise improved pain and memory in women with fibromyalgia, even without medication, suggests a new study.

Researchers found that regular aerobic exercise decreased activity in memory and pain control areas of the brain.

"The decreased brain activity ... suggests that the brain is working more efficiently," says study researcher Brian Walitt, MD, in a news release.

"We also see less brain activity in areas responsible for pain processing, which might be aiding that efficiency," says Walitt, the director of the Fibromyalgia Evaluation and Research Center at the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

The findings may help explain why regular exercise decreases pain and tenderness and improves brain function in people with fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia affects more than 5 million Americans, mainly women. Its most common symptoms include body-wide pain and tender points, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping. There can also be brain changes, such as memory and concentrations problems.

The study was presented at the Society of Neuroscience's annual meeting.

Exercise Boosts Brain Capacity

In this small study, researchers studied 18 women with fibromyalgia who had been taking medication for the condition. All the women received brain scans to measure their short-term memory. They also answered questions about their pain levels and overall well-being.

The women were asked to stop using their medication for six weeks. After that they had a second brain scan and took another round of memory tests. In the last stage of the study, the women exercised three times a week with a personal trainer.

During their half-hour workouts, the women could choose from several different kinds of aerobic activity. These included walking, cycling, swimming, and using a treadmill or an arm bicycle.

After participating in the fitness program for six weeks, the women received a final brain scan, memory testing, and a self-evaluation of their symptoms.

Initially, the women had more pain and memory problems when they stopped their medication. But after following a fitness program, memory returned to the levels seen at the start of the study. They also felt better physically and mentally, and they had less pain.

Their brain scans showed noticeable changes, too. Researchers observed a decrease in brain activity in areas that process pain and memory. This means the brain was more efficient and used less energy during a mental task.

The researchers suggest that one of the benefits of exercise for fibromyalgia patients is that it may streamline brain functioning. It may help free up brain resources involved in perceiving pain and improve its ability to hold on to new information.

Larger studies are needed to understand exactly how exercise may help fibromyalgia and what amount is most beneficial.

These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

Show Sources


Society of Neuroscience annual meeting, Neuroscience 2011, Washington, D.C., Nov. 12-16, 2011.

News release, Georgetown University Medical Center.

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