Studies have shown that fibromyalgia patients are 10 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population, and about three times more likely than other chronic pain patients.
What can be done to reduce that alarmingly high risk?
One possible solution is for fibromyalgia patients to visit a doctor more often, according to a new study published in the journal Arthritis Care & Research.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center analyzed health data for nearly 8,900 fibromyalgia patients, finding 34 known suicide attempts and 96 documented cases of suicidal thoughts – also known as suicide ideation. Then they looked at how often the patients saw a doctor.
On average, patients who had suicidal thoughts spent 1.7 hours seeing a doctor per year, while those who did not have suicide ideation visited a doctor an average of 5.9 hours per year.
The difference was even more substantial for those who tried to commit suicide. Fibromyalgia patients who attempted suicide saw a doctor for less than an hour a year, compared to over 50 hours per year for those who did not try to kill themselves.
“Fifty hours versus one hour – that’s a staggering difference,” said lead author Lindsey McKernan, PhD, a professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “They might have been at one appointment in a year and this disorder, fibromyalgia, takes a lot to manage. It takes a lot of engagement.”
Fibromyalgia is characterized by deep tissue pain, fatigue, depression, insomnia and mood swings. Because fibromyalgia is difficult to diagnose and treat, there is a fair amount of stigma associated with it and patients often feel like they are not believed or taken seriously by their family, friends and doctors.
Self-isolation could be one reason fibromyalgia patients don’t visit a physician as often as they should.
“If you really break it down the people who were having suicidal thoughts weren’t going into the doctor as much. I think about the people who might be falling through the cracks. Chronic pain in and of itself is very isolating over time,” said McKernan.
“Perhaps we can connect those individuals to an outpatient provider, or providers, to improve their care and reduce their suicide risk. We also might see patients at-risk establish meaningful relationships with providers whom they can contact in times of crisis,” said senior author Colin Walsh, MD, a professor of Biomedical Informatics at Vanderbilt.
In addition to seeing a primary care provider or rheumatologist, researchers say fibromyalgia patients should be getting regular exercise and physical therapy, and working with a psychologist or mental health provider.
“We looked at thousands of people in this study and not one who received mental health services of some kind went on to attempt suicide,” McKernan said.
“Often, when you are hurting, your body tells you to stay in bed. Moving is the last thing that you want to do. And when you are tired, when your mood is low, when your body aches, you don’t want to see anybody, but that is exactly what you need to do — contact your doctors, stay in touch with them, and move. It really can make a difference.”