Hypersensitivity is a condition in which there is an exaggerated immune response to external stimuli. People with fibromyalgia are often hypersensitive to things that affect our senses such as bright lights, loud noises, and strong smells. Certain foods and chemicals can also trigger unpleasant responses.
Research suggests that the pain associated with fibromyalgia is caused by a “malfunction” in the way the body processes pain. This malfunction results in a hypersensitivity to stimuli that normally are not painful.
Brain scans of people with fibromyalgia show that they process non-painful stimuli, such as sound and touch, differently than the brains of people without the disorder. This may explain why patients often complain of hypersensitivity to sensations in everyday life.
Hypersensitivities people living with fibromyalgia report:
- Increased sensitivity to touch or pressure – Mild pressure from clothing, a light touch, gentle massage, or sheets rubbing against the skin can cause pain for people with fibromyalgia. This kind of pain is called tactile allodynia. “Allodynia” means a painful response to typically non-painful stimulus, and “tactile” means touch. Researchers have found elevated levels of inflammatory markers in the skin of people with fibromyalgia — which may be linked to hypersensitivity to touch.
- Increased sensitivity to sounds – Many people with FM report sensitivity to sound. And not just loud noises, repetitive sounds can be bothersome, as well. Sound can be magnified to the point where it becomes unbearable.
- Increased sensitivity to odors – We tend to be very sensitive to chemical smells. Cleaning products, perfume, smoke, vehicle exhaust and many other odors can cause an exaggerated reaction. Much of the over reaction to chemical odors is due to what is called multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). It is estimated that 60% of those with fibromyalgia also have MCS.
- Increased sensitivity to light – Most people with FM report having light sensitivity. Most can barely tolerate bright sunlight and prefer dim light. Some people can’t go anywhere unless they wear dark glasses. Driving at night can be problematic because of the glaring headlights of oncoming traffic.
- Increased sensitivity to temperature changes – Many people with fibromyalgia complain of being cold all the time, or hot all the time, or go back and forth from one to the other. According to the Fibromyalgia Network, exposure to cold air is one of the most common triggers for flare-ups of symptoms. And hot weather makes many of us feel sick.
- Increased sensitivity to certain foods – Some foods can trigger fibromyalgia flare-ups. Many people with FM are sensitive to: caffeine, gluten, sweeteners such as sugar, corn syrup, fructose, aspartame and saccharin; food additives such as MSG, preservatives, artificial colors and artificial flavors. About one-third of fibromyalgia patients experience food sensitivities or food allergies.
- Increased sensitivity to medications – People with FM can be extremely sensitive to medications and frequently have adverse reactions to them.
The presence of these sensitivities can feel overwhelming and create an additional source of stress and anxiety. Light, noise, and odors bother me the most. When they do, my whole body tenses up. Even though a touch doesn’t hurt, I flinch if someone touches me because my anxiety is through the roof.
Symptoms can range from mild to severe and vary from person to person. Symptoms may include:
- Headaches including migraines
- Allergy symptoms, hay fever or sinus problems
- Wheezing or feeling out of breath
- Brain fog
- Muscle and joint pain
- Burning, tingling or itchy skin
- Digestive disorders
Your level of fibromyalgia pain is closely tied to how many sensory symptoms you are battling,
Fibromyalgia symptoms that affect all your senses can make every day a struggle. The primary way to manage hypersensitivity is to avoid the things that bother you. Depending on what those things are, it can be difficult. Measures to reduce intensity and severity of symptoms include:
- Avoid your triggers – Eliminating exposure to the things which cause your negative reactions is the most effective treatment. (I don’t know how many times I have been at a social event and then someone’s fragrance ruins everything and I have to leave due to an instant migraine and nausea. Or the noise was too much for me to handle.)
- Control your environment – Try to rid your home of anything that you are sensitive to, especially in your bedroom. You need at least one room in your home to be a safe haven. A place where you can get away from things that are bothering you. (I have three air purifiers and use mostly scent-free products.)
- Reduce stress – Anything that calms and relaxes you like meditation, reading or listening to music can help ease symptoms. Exercise, in general, can alleviate stress. Opt for an exercise known for its soothing nature, such as yoga or tai chi.
- Eat well to improve your immune system – Increasing the levels of certain nutrients and antioxidants often reduces symptom severity. Your diet should be rich in fruits and vegetables and produce should be organic when possible. Avoid processed and any other foods that you are sensitive to.
- Educate family and friends – Avoiding triggers can isolate you. Speaking out about your high sensitivity can help people understand and even work to make things more comfortable. (I have only begun trying to explain this to my family. They don’t get it…and some seem like they don’t really care.)
People with fibromyalgia experience pain in ways that no one really understands. Research suggests that fibromyalgia is caused by a problem in how the body processes pain, or more precisely, a hypersensitivity to stimuli that normally are not painful. When things from daily life cause sensory overload, it only adds to the struggle.
It is any wonder that fibromyalgia is so hard to understand?