What Is Fibromyalgia? Autonomic Nervous System Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Function?

Really, what is fibromyalgia? The autonomic nervous system is the part of the nervous system outside of the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord) that acts as a control system, functioning largely without any conscious effort from you. This system is further divided into two systems: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). It controls many functions such as breathing, heart rate, digestion, sweating, saliva secretion, perspiration, eye dilation, urination, and sexual arousal.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems have exactly opposite effects on the functions of the body. They essentially work in opposition to each other, but in a way that complements each other. The balance between the two is crucial for the perfect function of every cell in your body. If your body were a car, the sympathetic nervous system would be the gas pedal, and the parasympathetic nervous system would be the brake. While they are both crucial to the car, they cannot be stepped on at the same time. In the typical fibromyalgia syndrome patient, the sympathetic nervous system has its pedal to the metal, all the time. And, as many fibromyalgia sufferers unfortunately find out firsthand, this is bad news for your health. The golden rule of the autonomic nervous system is that if one system is up, the other system must be down

Find out more:

What Causes Fibromyalgia

How to Test For Fibromyalgia

What Is The Sympathetic Nervous System Function?

“Fight or Flight”

This system was designed to help your body fight to stay alive when your survival is being threatened. Think of a caveman in hand-to-paw combat with a saber-toothed tiger. This portion of your nervous system responds very quickly (think zero to ninety in a few seconds), since one usually doesn’t have time to calmly ponder one’s response to a life-threatening situation.

When your life is being threatened and your body gets ready to fight in order to ensure its survival, every small bit of energy spent is carefully considered. Nothing is wasted. Energy will be rerouted away from systems that do not concern them- selves with short-term survival, to where it can be used more readily to fight an immediate threat. For example, blood will flow away from the digestive tract and skin in order to be rationed out to the lungs and muscles. It is more important under those circumstances to be able to fight using your muscles, and to breathe hard and fast, as your body needs oxygen.

Speaking of oxygen, the bronchioles (small air passages) in the lungs will open up, which allows for more oxygen into the blood. At the same time the heart will beat faster. Another physiological change in the body is that the pupils will dilate, allowing more light to enter the eyes. The adrenal glands on top of the kidneys will pump adrenalin in case you need extra motivation besides fear to fight. It will also make all the sphincters (think of pressure valves) in the body, like the urinary sphincter, contract and close tight.

So why does this affect you? There probably isn’t the equivalent of a saber-toothed tiger chasing you every day. However, your brain can not distinguish fear and stress from actual life-threatening situations. Additionally, as mentioned earlier in this book when we discussed emotional stress, a very old traumatic event can run in a continuous “loop” in the subconscious mind. The brain cannot distinguish between this old memory and present danger. The old memory almost acts like a computer virus, messing with the software in your nervous system. Your brain does not know that it isn’t happening anymore.

When a person suffers a neck injury following, for example, a fall or car accident affecting the brainstem directly or indirectly, the sympathetic nervous system will become overexcited, affecting the whole body. This will cause your sympathetic nervous system, or “fight or flight” response, to be stuck in the “on” position day in and day out—and if your sympathetic nervous system is stuck all the time, your parasympathetic nervous system is turned off. This will lead to the classic symptoms of fibromyalgia and other autonomic dysfunction or WAD (whiplash-associated dysfunctions).

What Is The Parasympathetic Nervous System Function?

“Rest and Digest”

Think of your parasympathetic nervous system as the system that calms you down, helps you to rest and sleep, and deals with sexual arousal. It functions to counter the sympathetic system. After a crisis or danger has passed, this system helps to calm the body. Your heart and breathing rates slow, your digestion resumes, your pupils contract, and you stop sweating.

This system will also cause the increase of blood flow to your GI tract following a meal to allow digestion. It stimulates the movements of your intestines (called peristalsis) that move food through your intestines. It will constrict the pupil of the eye, cause you to salivate when appropriate, and is responsible for getting you in the mood for sex. This system, if activated, will activate your immune system, cause increased circulation to the skin and extremities, and help to release your “feel-good” hormones, called endorphins. It will also decrease temperature. It is the main control system that promotes healing. This system is usually underactive, suppressed, or turned off in those who suffer from fibromyalgia. No wonder you are not in the mood for get- ting frisky!

Emily and her therapist, Katie, celebrating a big moment! Emily hasn’t been able to put her arms above her head in over 10 years.
Emily and her therapist, Katie, celebrating a big moment! Emily hasn’t been able to put her arms above her head in over 10 years.


Pain, your dark passenger

How does fibromyalgia effected by the autonomic nervous system sympathetic and parasympathetic function?There is no symptom more life-robbing to the fibromyalgia sufferer than the constant, widespread, spirit-eroding pain. When you under- stand the mechanics behind the pain of fibromyalgia, the pain makes perfect sense. Understanding the mechanics of your specific pain will bring you one step closer to hope.

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