When most people think about fibromyalgia, they think about pain. The disease is a chronic one that causes widespread pain and inflammation throughout the body—particularly in the muscles and joints.
The pain of fibromyalgia can differ from person to person, with some people experiencing a vague aching and others dealing with severe pain that concentrates in specific parts of the body.
Stiffness can also be a factor in fibromyalgia, with some having trouble getting up and moving first thing in the morning or feeling stiffness in various joints throughout the day.
It is worth noting, however, that fibromyalgia is not to be confused with rheumatoid arthritis, which also affects the joints but causes damage to them. Fibromyalgia does not cause damage to muscle tissues or joints.
Besides pain, however, fibromyalgia can cause a host of other symptoms. Like many other autoimmune disorders, fibromyalgia can cause bouts of extreme fatigue.
In fact, pain and fatigue are two of the hallmark symptoms of this disease. In addition to these symptoms, fibromyalgia can cause bizarre symptoms of sensitivity throughout the body, as well as sensations of burning, tingling and numbness.
Some of these symptoms may not initially even seem to be related to fibromyalgia, resulting in internet searches for things like “fibromyalgia and sensitive to touch” in an attempt to discover what’s going on.
Fibromyalgia and Central Sensitization
It may seem odd that fibromyalgia and sensitive skin should go hand-in-hand, but researchers are starting to develop theories as to why this is the case.
They believe that people with fibromyalgia experience changes to their central nervous system—a condition known as “central sensitization.”
This causes overall sensitivity—not just to typical causes of pain or already-existing pain, but to things that most people would find pleasant.
Central sensitization is at the root of many of the symptoms that fibromyalgia patients experience. Due to this condition, their overall pain levels feel more intense and take longer to fade than would be the case with most people.
An overactive central nervous system wreaks havoc on all of the senses, causing people with central sensitization to be overwhelmed by various sensory experiences that would seem normal to everyone else.
For example, many people with fibromyalgia can’t withstand bright lights or being exposed to loud sounds. To someone with fibromyalgia, a concert that would be pleasant to many people can be sensory overload (with its sounds, lights and large crowds).
This overstimulation can also pertain to scents; a fragrance that one person might deem light and subtle may seem overpowering and cause headaches or nausea in someone with central sensitization.
Skin sensitivity is another symptom of fibromyalgia-related central sensitization. Skin sensations that would be painful to most people may be excruciating to someone with an overactive central nervous system. Sensations that would normally be pleasant can also be painful to people with this condition.
Although massage can be an effective treatment for a variety of fibromyalgia sufferers, for people with fibromyalgia and sensitive to touch, even a soft massage can be unbearable.
This kind of skin sensitivity can be experienced along with something called paresthesia, which is numbness, tingling, burning or a pins-and-needles sensation in the skin (usually in the hands and feet).
Help for Skin Sensitivity
If you feel like your pain and sensitivity levels are higher than they should be—that things that shouldn’t hurt that much (or at all) are causing you an abnormal amount of pain, a good first step is finding a doctor who is familiar with central sensitization.
This is important because you want to avoid medical professionals who will suggest therapies that will be incredibly painful (due to your sensitization), as well as those who will write off your pain and sensitivity to other causes that simply aren’t valid.
If your pain is, in fact, being caused by something else, that’s one thing; but you want your doctor to consider central sensitization as a possibility when making a diagnosis.
The next step towards easing your skin sensitivity (and any other sensitivity you may be experiencing) is to create an environment that is gentle on your central nervous system.
An overactive central nervous system will cause everything to be heightened; lights will seem blindingly bright, noises will seem startlingly or painfully loud, and touch—even the brush of clothing, at times—may feel painful. A calm central nervous system will help lessen all of these symptoms.
How do you go about calming your nervous system? A focus on peace and reduced stress levels is important. As much as possible, make your environment a sanctuary.
Keep the lights low and keep loud sounds to a minimum. If noise reduction isn’t possible, using ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones are helpful.
Try to keep your home free of products that have strong scents (in order to avoid overstimulation and headaches that can result). Wear clothing that is loose and comfortable.
Reducing anxiety is also important to calm your central nervous system. Exercise can be helpful for this, as it releases endorphins that are natural stress- and anxiety-relievers.
Some people find a regular meditation practice helpful; others have found help with cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Doctors often prescribe antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications to help reduce anxiety levels. This does NOT mean that your pain and sensitivity are in your head; it just means that there is a definite mind-body connection and that whatever goes on in your mind has a very real effect on what happens with your body.
Lastly, be compassionate and patient with yourself. Understand that your symptoms are real and that they are very individual; what you experience may be entirely different from what another fibromyalgia patient experiences.
Keep a diary of what triggers specific flare-ups and symptoms and try to work to avoid them as much as possible. Also make a record of what treatments seem to help (as well as those that don’t).
With time, you’ll come to a better understanding of your symptoms and an effective treatment.