Fibromyalgia…is it a “sensory defensive” condition?

Fibro Friends, this article caught my eye and I wanted to share it with you. Please follow it through to the end, it’s not very long. Then I would like to hear your response… 

Fibromyalgia sufferers experience chronic widespread muscular pain, achiness, poor sleep, and extreme fatigue. Following a sleepless night, sufferers of FM wake up exhausted, their mind in a fog, and their bodies feeling beaten up with intense pain that could last for days, weeks, or even months.

Low sensory threshold

FM sufferers feel intense pain because of a low pain threshold. But it’s not just pain. They appear to have a low threshold for multiple sensations including touch, heat, cold, chemicals, light, sound, and smell. In brain imaging studies of FM, nonnoxious sensation activated areas of the brain that modulate responses to pain, indicating distorted sensory processing. In other words, FM sufferers appear to be “sensory defensive,” a condition in which a person is hypersensitive and over-responsive to sensations that don’t seem to bother others.

Study confirms link between FM and hypersensitivity

Initially, the link between fibromyalgia and sensory defensiveness has come from discussion on informational websites, chat rooms and clinician reports. But research too is confirming a link between FM and multisensory hypersensitivity.
In a study published in Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, researchers compared 27 women with FM to 28 women with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and 28 healthy pain-free women, the control group. Sensory processing was measured using a self-report survey of sensory processing. The survey asked the women if they are sensitive to sensations that do not seem to bother other people or avoid common activities or environments because of smells, tastes, sound, sights, movement challenges, or touch. For example, “I dislike being close to people who wear perfume or cologne,” “I leave the room when others are watching TV or ask them to turn it down,” or “I am bothered by turtleneck shirts, tight fitting clothes, elastic, nylons, or synthetic material in clothes.”

The FM group in this study had higher scores of hypersensitivity across multiple modalities. In particular, scores were higher for taste and smell, auditory, and tactile sensations. The RA and control groups did not differ in reported hypersensitivities. This hypersensitivity may account for the “fibro fog,” or slow processing of information common in FM sufferers. When overwhelmed by sensation, your attention is focused on flight or fight and it’s difficult to process other information.

FM pain and hypersensitivity – a double whammy

Sensory defensiveness greatly interferes with daily functioning as it leaves you hyperaroused, wired, exhausted, anxious and stressed. To cope, you avoid places and people that overstimulate you and miss out on many typical life activities. Dealing with the pain of fibromyalgia as well adds additional stress, anxiety, and fatigue and further reduces the ability to cope with and enjoy ordinary life.

Help for hypersensitivity

Fortunately, many ways exist to reduce sensory defensiveness. Occupational therapists have been providing effective interventions for sensory defensiveness for more than 50 years. Sufferers can also learn how to implement a “sensory diet” to balance the nervous system so they feel less wired and stressed. Strategies include specific kinds of exercise that tap into the vestibular (balance) and proprioceptive (body awareness) systems, massage, yoga, listening programs, electromagnetic therapy or EMT, light therapy and the use of essential oils. Implementing such sensory strategies will not only reduce hypersensitivity and pain but increase well being, lift mood, and improve physical health.

What do you think about this article?  Does the science behind it hold reverence to how we feel as Fibromyalgia suffers? Leave your personal opinions in the comment section below. -April B.


About the author:
Sharon Heller, PhD is a developmental psychologist who specializes in books on holistic solutions for anxiety, panic and sensory processing disorder (SPD). She is the author of several popular psychology books including “Uptight & Off Center: How sensory processing disorder throws adults off balance & how to create stability” (Symmetry, 2013), “Anxiety: Hidden Causes, Why your anxiety may not be ‘all in your head’ but from something physical” (Symmetry, 2011) and “Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight, What to do if you are sensory defensive in an overstimulating world” (HarperCollins, 2002). She can be contacted via email at and via her website,

Sources for this article include:

Wilbarger, JL, Cook, DB. Multisensory Hypersensitivity in Women With Fibromyalgia: Implications for Well Being and Intervention. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation,2011;92: 653-656.


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About The Author


This is a blog for all Fibromyalgia sufferers. I have fibromyalgia myself. I blog about my fibro health and life. The problems I have with Fibromyalgia and how I solve them. I write about therapies, medications and the life itself, as a disabled person who wants to be thought of as normal. I have two children, they both live at home with me. Both boys they are 22 and 18 years of age. I also have at home three dogs and two cats. Yes, sometimes it’s like a zoo around here. I live in California. I am surviving on Social Security Disability Insurance and marketing online. It has been slow going but I am making it work. I am no longer able to work outside the home because of the fibromyalgia. I used to be a Loan Officer for a large mortgage company. I also have a Real Estate license. I use to be a very busy person. The fibromyalgia has taken a lot out of me. As I am sure it has for you too. So I write for you, the hurting and disabled with Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue, IBS, and all the other symptoms we so boldly carry. My hope is that you’ll get some value out of this blog. Always feel as if you can comment on my views. I would love to hear some interaction from my readers. I have created the site to truly help people that are experiencing difficulty in their own lives with Fibromyalgia. Many people in America and all over the world are suffering from this disease. This site is dedicated to helping provide the most up to date information about living and coping with Fibromyalgia in your everyday life. I am not a doctor, nor am I licensed to give medical advice in any way. Any information you find on my blog is strictly an opinion and should not be taken as medical advice. You are responsible for any information you use from this site in your own life. Please talk with a licensed, medical professional before making any important decisions about your health or illness. Thank you. Sincerely, April Baldner (myfibrolife)


  • Emilie

    Reply Reply June 18, 2014

    I also think that depending on one’s nelrcuogioal wiring sensory issues are often an issue. One of my favorite books is The Out of Sync Child. I know you give great parenting advice and I think this will help many parents with children sensitive to sensory environment. For example, in clothing I’ve cut many tags out of my boys’ clothes and they are very picky about fabric. Sensory issues they have to varying degrees: food textures, smells, light, sounds, There is an interesting interplay between the psychological and the nelrcuogioal. I think if a child who is nelrcuogioally wired to be sensitive to emotions and environment is raised by critical demanding fear-inducing parents, it doubles things up. And if there is physical discipline, that’s an issue. So many interesting points you raise. It’s all complex. And this is why when people are adults and going through therapy it gets harder to separate out the psychological, family based issues from genetic wiring. Treating children well and appropriately and remembering that each child is unique and different is important.

    • aprilb

      Reply Reply June 23, 2014

      Yes, remembering that every child is different and a very unique individual is the key to parenting. Raising a person, from a childhood state to an adult is a feat for anyone. It is all, as you say
      “a complex situation”.

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