Background: Patients with myalgic encephalomyelitis / chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) are unable to activate brain-orchestrated endogenous analgesia (or descending inhibition) in response to exercise. This physiological impairment is currently regarded as one factor explaining post-exertional malaise in these patients. Autonomic dysfunction is also a feature of ME/CFS.
Objectives: This study aims to examine the role of the autonomic nervous system in exercise-induced analgesia in healthy people and those with ME/CFS, by studying the recovery of autonomic parameters following aerobic exercise and the relation to changes in self-reported pain intensity.
Study design: A controlled experimental study.
Setting: The study was conducted at the Human Physiology lab of a University.
Methods: Twenty women with ME/CFS- and 20 healthy, sedentary controls performed a submaximal bicycle exercise test known as the Aerobic Power Index with continuous cardiorespiratory monitoring. Before and after the exercise, measures of autonomic function (i.e., heart rate variability, blood pressure, and respiration rate) were performed continuously for 10 minutes and self-reported pain levels were registered. The relation between autonomous parameters and self-reported pain parameters was examined using correlation analysis.
Results: Some relationships of moderate strength between autonomic and pain measures were found. The change (post-exercise minus pre-exercise score) in pain severity was correlated (r = .580, P = .007) with the change in diastolic blood pressure in the healthy group. In the ME/CFS group, positive correlations between the changes in pain severity and low frequency (r = .552, P = .014), and between the changes in bodily pain and diastolic blood pressure (r = .472, P = .036), were seen. In addition, in ME/CHFS the change in headache severity was inversely correlated (r = -.480, P = .038) with the change in high frequency heart rate variability.
Limitations: Based on the cross-sectional design of the study, no firm conclusions can be drawn on the causality of the relations.
Conclusions: Reduced parasympathetic reactivation during recovery from exercise is associated with the dysfunctional exercise-induced analgesia in ME/CFS. Poor recovery of diastolic blood pressure in response to exercise, with blood pressure remaining elevated, is associated with reductions of pain following exercise in ME/CFS, suggesting a role for the arterial baroreceptors in explaining dysfunctional exercise-induced analgesia in ME/CFS patients.Key words: Aerobic exercise, aerobic power index, autonomic nervous system, exercise-induced analgesia, exercise-induced hypoalgesia, fibromyalgia, heart rate variability, stress-induced analgesia, pain.