The role of lifetime stressors in adult fibromyalgia: systematic review and meta-analysis of case-control studies

Psychol Med. 2021 Jan;51(2):177-193. doi: 10.1017/S0033291720004547.


Background: Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterised by widespread musculoskeletal pain. Although accumulating evidence suggests that exposure to stressful events increases the risk for this complex disorder, this is the first meta-analysis to compare the impact of a full range of lifetime stressors (e.g. physical trauma through to emotional neglect) on adult fibromyalgia.

Methods: This review was performed in accordance with PRISMA guidelines. Random-effects models examined associations between different stressor exposures and fibromyalgia status with meta-regression investigating the effects of publication year and study quality on effect sizes.

Results: Nineteen studies were included in the meta-analysis. Significant associations with fibromyalgia status were observed for all six exposure types examined: odds ratios (OR) were highest for physical abuse (OR 3.23, 95% confidence interval 1.99-5.23) and total abuse (3.06, 1.71-5.46); intermediate for sexual abuse (2.65, 1.85-3.79) and smaller for medical trauma (1.80, 1.19-2.71), other lifetime stressors (1.70, 1.31-2.20), and emotional abuse (1.52, 1.27-1.81). Results were not significantly changed when childhood, as opposed to adult, exposures were used in studies that reported both. Meta-regression analyses demonstrated no effect of publication year or study quality on effect sizes.

Conclusions: This study confirmed a significant association between stressor exposure and adult fibromyalgia with the strongest associations observed for physical abuse. Limitations related to current available literature were identified; we provide several suggestions for how these can be addressed in future studies. Stressors are likely to be one of many risk factors for fibromyalgia which we argue is best approached from a biopsychosocial perspective.

Keywords: adversity; fibromyalgia; functional disorders; risk factors; stress; trauma.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Female
  • Fibromyalgia / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Physical Abuse / psychology
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Offenses / psychology
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*
  • Young Adult