Abnormal MicroRNA Levels Discovered in Fibromyalgia

Possible New Course of Study

Several microRNA levels appear to be abnormal in fibromyalgia. MOLEKUUL/Getty Images

What role, if any, do genetics play in fibromyalgia? Researchers have been working that problem for a long time, but a 2014 study published in Rheumatology International takes on that problem from a whole new angle -- and with interesting results.

In what researchers believe is the first study of its kind, results suggest that something called circulating microRNAs may play a role in this condition, with particular types of microRNAs appearing to have links to pain and sleep, which are two of the biggest problems those of us with fibromyalgia face.

What are MicroRNAs?

First, let's take a look at what microRNAs are.

RNA stands for ribonucleic acid. It's in all living cells and its main job is to carry messages from DNA (your genes) to the part of your cells that are responsible for making proteins. We have multiple types of RNA in our bodies, including several types classified as messenger RNA because of their function.

MicroRNAs are small, special fragments of RNA that target certain messenger RNAs and prevent them from carrying out their function. That means the message to create proteins is never delivered to the cells, so the proteins don't get made.

The end result is that abnormalities in your microRNA can lead to deficiencies or imbalances in protein production, which can throw off a lot of processes in your body that are necessary for things to work well. And when things don't work well, it can cause myriad symptoms.

MicroRNAs in Fibromyalgia

The Rheumatology International study looked at 374 different microRNAs in women with fibromyalgia as well as in a healthy control group.

What they discovered is that eight of those microRNAs were significantly different between the two groups.

Specifically, they were able to tie microRNA abnormalities to many common problems caused by fibromyalgia, including:

  • Pain;
  • Pain threshold (the point at which sensation becomes painful,) which is low in this condition;
  • Sleep quality, which is generally poor in people with fibromyalgia;
  • Sleep quantity, which is often low in us;
  • Other sleep-related symptoms.

It's too early to know what significance these microRNAs play in fibromyalgia, and whether they are a cause or effect of the illness. However, this could be a new avenue of study for researchers looking for treatment targets or diagnostic tests.

A Note on Genetics

To understand genetic research like this, it's important to have a basic understanding of how genetics works.

Most people know that our genes control what we look like -- hair and eye color, general appearance, height, etc. We also hear a lot about genetic predisposition and how it's a major factor in what health problems you may or may not develop during your life.

However, people frequently believe that our genes are set in stone, so to speak, that they are what they are and don't change.

That's actually not true. Our diets, our environments, our various illness, medications, and many other factors interact with our genes throughout our lifetime, making changes along the way. At any moment, we have certain genes that are activated and ones that are inactivated -- but those statuses can and do change.

That's a complicating factor when it comes to genetics research. When researchers compare the genes of the chronically ill to those of the healthy, they may find certain differences. However, it takes much more research to figure out whether those changes are what caused the illness in the first place or if they were changed by the illness.

So it's important to keep genetics research in perspective, understanding that our current genetic profile is a snapshot of where we are right now, but it may not reveal how we got to this point.

Now let's apply this knowledge to the microRNA study. It may be that something about fibromyalgia alters our microRNA function.

It could also be that this microRNA abnormality comes before the illness and helps to trigger it. For now, we just don't have enough information to say which it is.


Jersing JL, Bokarewa MI, Mannerkorpi K.  Rheumatology International. 2014 Sep 28. [Epub ahead of print] Profile of circulating microRNAs in fibromyalgia and the relation to symptom severity: an exploratory study.

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