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Fibromyalgia patients frequently find their way to the doctor’s office because of unexplained pain in their neck, shoulder, and/or back. The cause for the chronic pain has baffled the medical profession for decades; often resulting in a diagnosis that the brain in in the patients head.

Richard E. Harris, PhD, research assistant professor, Division of Rheumatology of Internal Medicine, University of Michigan Medical School, believes he has found the link between fibromyalgia pain and the neurotransmitter molecule glutamate.

The glutamate molecule helps convey information between neurons in the nervous system. When glutamate is released from one neuron it binds to the receptors on the next neuron, which causes the the newly attached neuron to become excited (or more active.) Glutamate was targeted for Harris’ study because previous studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), had established that the insula region of the brain in fibromyalgia patients was highly active.

For 4 weeks participants were given either real acupuncture treatments or sham acupuncture treatments to reduce pain. The sham treatment involved using a sharp device to prick the skin in order to mimic a real acupuncture sensation.

After 4 weeks of treatment both the participants receiving the real acupuncture and sham acupuncture self-reported reductions in pain. What is significant is that the patients who reported the greatest reduction in pain also had the greatest reduction of glutamate in the insula region of the brain. Harris’ believes that glutamate may play a role in fibromyalgia and could possibly be used as a biomarker of the disease’s severity.

Because the study involved a small number of participants, Harris feels additional studies need to be done to verify the role of glutamate in fibromyalgia.