Background and aims The interaction between the immune system and pain has been thoroughly explored in the recent decades. The release of inflammatory mediators from immune cells has the capability of activating neurons and glial cells, in turn sensitizing the nervous system. Both immune system alterations and pain modulation dysfunctions have been shown in myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) following exercise. However, no studies tried to explore whether these two phenomena are linked and can explain exercise-induced symptoms worsening in people with ME/CFS. We hypothesized that exercise-induced changes in descending pain modulation is associated to changes in immune system functions. We used complement system product C4a and elastase activity as indicators of immune system activity. Methods The study design was a secondary analysis of controlled experimental studies. Twenty-two patients with ME/CFS and 22 healthy sedentary controls were enrolled. In experiment 1, subjects performed an aerobic submaximal exercise test; in experiment 2 they underwent a self-paced exercise test. One week of rest period were set between the two exercise tests. Before and after each experiment, subjects underwent clinical assessment, pain thresholds (PPTs) measurement, and blood sampling. Immune system function was assessed measuring complement system C4a products and elastase activity. Results Changes in elastase activity were not associated to changes in PPTs. Associations were observed in the ME/CFS group between changes in PPTs and C4a products, following both types of exercise. After submaximal exercise, the change in C4a products was associated with the change in PPT at the thumb in patients (r=0.669, p=0.001). Similarly, after self-paced exercise the change in C4a products was associated witht the change in PPT at the calf in patients (r=0.429, p=0.047). No such correlations were found in healthy controls. Regression analysis showed that C4a changes after the submaximal exercise significantly predicted the change in PPTs (R2=0.236; p=0.02). Conclusions Moderate associations between exercise-induced changes in PPTs and immune system activity were found only in ME/CFS. The change in the complement system following submaximal exercise might be able to explain part of the change in patient's pain thresholds, providing evidence for a potential link between immune system alteration and dysfunctional endogenous pain modulation. These results have to be taken with caution, as only one out of three measures of PPTs was found associated with C4a changes. We cannot reject the hypothesis that C4a might therefore be a confounding factor, and changes during exercise might be mediated by other mechanism. Implications Immune system changes following exercise might contribute to exercise-induced symptoms worsening in patients with ME/CFS. However, the role of the complement system is questionable.
Keywords: chronic fatigue syndrome; exercise; hyperalgesia; immune system; pain; pain threshold.