Objective: Patients with fibromyalgia have shown hyporeactive autonomic nervous system (ANS) responses to physical stressors, augmented pain to ANS changes, and heightened negative emotions, which can increase pain. This study examined ANS reactivity to negative emotions and its association with pain in fibromyalgia and control participants.
Methods: Sixty-two women with fibromyalgia and 59 women in a control group recalled neutral, and anger- and sadness-eliciting experiences while ANS activity was monitored. Clinical and experimental pain were assessed in response to each emotion.
Results: Compared with neutral recall, heart rate (p = .050), mean arterial pressure (p < .001), and high-frequency heart rate variability (p = .012) increased in response to sadness, whereas heart rate decreased (p = .002) and mean arterial pressure increased (p < .001) in response to anger; however, ANS responses did not differ between patients and control participants (all p > .29). Among patients only, decreased preejection period (anger-pain threshold: r = 0.31, p = .018) and total peripheral resistance in response to negative emotions (anger-pain tolerance: r = 0.35, p = .025; sadness-pain threshold: r = 0.51, p < .001; sadness-pain tolerance: r = 0.61, p < .001) correlated with more pain.
Conclusions: These data suggest that the ANS is not hyporesponsive to elicited emotions in fibromyalgia; however, patients with a larger pain response showed an ANS response pattern reflecting heightened β-adrenergic and reduced α-adrenergic reactivity. Future research should test whether a specific ANS response pattern to emotions is a consequence of increased pain or whether it amplifies pain.
Keywords: autonomic nervous system; cardiovascular responsiveness; emotions; fibromyalgia; pain; stress.