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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.