Pain helps us to survive - but it can also turn our own body into an enemy

When a patient is diagnosed with fibromyalgia, all too often symptoms are dismissed as "all in the mind".

Rare individuals born without pain perception (congenital insensitivity to pain, CIP) rapidly accumulate disabilities and tend to die young. Pain makes us withdraw from and subsequently avoid injurious situations, it prompts us to protect damaged structures such as eyes or joints, and it alerts us to diseases such as appendicitis that may prove fatal without treatment. And what is true of physical pain also applies to its emotional counterpart. Pain is good for us. It helps us to survive.

But what if pain perception goes haywire? Like all UK general practitioners, I have several patients with a frustrating if fascinating condition called fibromyalgia. Jane (as I’ll call her) is typical of the severe end of the spectrum: she’s a woman in her 40s (early middle-aged women are most frequently affected), her life is blighted by unremitting pain in muscles throughout her body and no painkiller gives her any relief (she has tried them all, even morphine).

Over the years she’s become progressively disabled, finding it harder to do even simple things such as help her young children dress, and she’s able to work fewer and fewer hours. Around 18 months ago she went long-term sick and earlier this year her employer terminated her contract. She’s now struggling to adjust to a life on benefits. Apart from the constant pain, one of the things she worries about most is other people’s disbelief. To casual observation, Jane appears in the pink of health.

People with fibromyalgia have precious little to show for their suffering. They have no swelling, inflammation, limp or deformity. Blood tests, X-rays, scans and biopsies are normal. Theirs is a subjective illness. They find that family and friends eventually tire of hearing about their intractable pain and its impacts. Little wonder that depression and anxiety are common complications.

To cap it all, their doctors frequently grow frustrated as they return, time and again, to report a distinct lack of improvement with each and every treatment they try. Over the years, many physicians have questioned fibromyalgia’s validity as a disease; physical symptoms are dismissed as “all in the mind”, the implication being that, in an unconscious way, these patients “need” their illness as a passport to duck out from the stresses, strains and dissatisfactions of everyday life.

Advances in imaging the functioning nervous system are beginning to shed light on what’s really going on. To experience pain, you have to have the requisite sensory apparatus: receptors (nociceptors) that detect harmful changes within the body’s tissues and organs; and nerve cells (neurons) that relay this information to the brain.

This sensory apparatus is missing in those rare individuals with CIP. But sensing alone is not enough. Once pain nerve signals reach the brain they are subject to what is termed central processing, involving a number of the brain’s most evolutionarily primitive regions, regions that are involved with raw emotional response – with fight, flight and survival. It’s this central processing that transforms nociceptor sensory input into our subjective experience of pain.

There’s a heck of a lot of other nerve traffic passing from body to brain that’s got nothing to do with pain. For example, our muscles are constantly generating information about their position, stretch and contraction, all of which ensures the apparently effortless coordination of our movements and balance.

In fibromyalgia, some of this non-pain information seems to become capable of triggering the brain’s central pain processing regions. The very fact of having normally functioning muscles begins to be experienced as chronic, widespread pain.

It’s not fully clear what causes this malfunction, but a process called central sensitisation is at its heart. We know that 30 per cent of patients with uncontrolled rheumatoid arthritis –where diseased joints constantly bombard the brain with nociceptive input – will eventually develop superimposed fibromyalgia. Sheer volume of pain traffic in the nervous system may be one factor in central sensitisation.

However, many fibromyalgia sufferers don’t have painful arthritis. Their fibromyalgia may be linked to genetically disposed abnormalities in brain chemistry. The chemicals (neurotransmitters) involved in central pain processing have different functions elsewhere in the nervous system, which may account for the additional symptoms many fibromyalgia patients experience – sleep disturbance, profound fatigue, and impaired concentration and thinking (“fibrofog”).

It’s as yet unclear what causes these neurotransmitter abnormalities to be “unmasked” at a certain time but intriguing studies into “pain memory” suggest that stresses in adult life may reignite central sensitisation originally developed in the context of severe emotional or physical pain when young, something that may explain the association between fibromyalgia and childhood abuse or trauma.

We’re still a long way from understanding fibromyalgia, but we are at least now aware that, as an illness, it’s all in the brain, if not the mind.

Pain tells us when an activity is damaging our body too much to go on. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.