As good as it gets? A meta-analysis and systematic review of methodological quality of heart rate variability studies in functional somatic disorders

Biol Psychol. 2009 Oct;82(2):101-10. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2009.05.002. Epub 2009 May 20.


Autonomic nervous system (ANS) dysfunction is a potential mechanism connecting psychosocial stress to functional somatic disorders (FSD), such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome. We present the first meta-analysis and systematic review of methodological study quality on the association between cardiac ANS dysfunction, measured as parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activity using heart rate variability (HRV), and FSD. Literature search revealed 23 available studies including data on 533 FSD patients. Meta-analysis on a subgroup of 14 studies with suitable outcome measures indicated lower PNS activity in FSD patients compared to controls (weighted standardized mean difference (SMD)=-0.32, 95% CI -0.63 to -0.01, p=0.04). The reliability of this summary estimate was, however, significantly limited by unexplained heterogeneity in the effect sizes and potential publication bias (weighted SMD after correction for funnel plot asymmetry=0.01, 95% CI -0.34 to 0.36, p=0.95). The systematic review of overall methodological quality of HRV studies in FSD demonstrates that there is substantial room for improvement, especially in selection of healthy control subjects, blinding of researchers performing HRV measurements, report of adequate HRV outcomes, and assessment of and adjustment for potential confounders. Methodological study quality was, however, not a significant predictor of study findings. We conclude that current available evidence is not adequate to firmly reject or accept a role of ANS dysfunction in FSD. Quality criteria and recommendations to improve future research on HRV in FSD are provided.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Databases, Bibliographic / statistics & numerical data
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / physiopathology*
  • Fibromyalgia / physiopathology*
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome / physiopathology*
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Quality Assurance, Health Care