People with fibromyalgia (search) and other chronic pain conditions (search) may be more active than they think they are, according to a new study.

"When you ask people with fibromyalgia about their level of function in terms of activity levels, they'll report a lower function than almost any other group," says researcher Dan Clauw, MD. "The surprising thing that we found was that their average level of activity was about the same as someone who didn't have fibromyalgia."

Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes constant pain and tenderness in the muscles. The symptoms are often severe enough to limit daily activities.

But round-the-clock monitoring of exercise levels of people with fibromyalgia showed that they had similar average activity levels as people who don’t have chronic pain conditions. In addition, increased physical activity was not associated with a subsequent increase in pain.

"Exercise and activity are essential to the well-being of people with fibromyalgia," says researcher Dan Clauw, MD, director of the University of Michigan Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center, in a news release. "Our research shows that higher activity is not in fact leading people to increased pain, and it could be used to show patients that they can be active."

The results appear in the January issue of Arthritis & Rheumatism.

Exercise and Fibromyalgia

In the study, researchers followed 38 people with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome (search), or both, and a comparison group of 27 healthy adults without those conditions. Each participant wore an actigraph, a small watch-sized device that measures movement in various directions rather than just one direction like a pedometer, to measure physical activity levels.

Chronic fatigue syndrome is a disorder that causes prolonged constant fatigue and tiredness that doesn’t go away with rest.

The study showed that people with these conditions had lower peak exercise levels and spent less time in high-intensity activities, such as taking an aerobics class, than the healthy adults.

But the two groups had similar average exercise levels.

Researchers say the results may lead to a better understanding of fibromyalgia and other chronic pain conditions.

For example, the study showed that pain and fatigue preceded lower exercise levels rather than followed increased physical activity. Researchers say this finding may help doctors encourage their patients to remain active without increasing painful symptoms.

"We've probably been thinking about fibromyalgia incorrectly," Clauw says. "This group was impaired, but they weren't impaired in the way they thought they would be."

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCE: News release, University of Michigan Health System.