Fibromyalgia syndrome, a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain, fatigue and cognitive issues, may be a consequence of post-traumatic physical and psychological distress associated with childhood sexual abuse, according to a recent Israeli study.

The study, part of an ongoing investigation of therapeutic strategies for treating survivors of childhood sexual abuse, was done at the University of Haifa and Assaf Harofeh Medical Center and was published in Frontiers in Psychology.

The research suggests that survivors of childhood sexual abuse who develop fibromyalgia may be effectively treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy along with psychotherapy.

“We now know that severe emotional stress, such as that caused by sexual abuse, can induce chronic brain injury,” said Dr. Shai Efrati, director of the Sagol Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Research at Assaf Harofeh and a faculty member of Tel Aviv University’s medical school.

“These non-healing brain wounds may explain certain unremitting long-term physical and psychological disorders like fibromyalgia.”

“We also now know that fibromyalgia takes root in the part of the brain responsible for pain interpretation. Using novel brain imaging technologies, we have now, for the first time, identified the injured areas of the brain injured by traumatic abuse,” he adds.

He said the results could explain why psychological intervention rarely helps, as it does not repair the damaged brain tissue.

“The study shows that when these brain wounds are treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy, neuroplasticity can be induced and the related clinical symptoms significantly improved.”

The two-year study involved 40 female survivors of childhood sexual abuse suffering from fibromyalgia. Those treated with hyperbaric sessions in addition to psychotherapy reported a significant improvement in all measures of quality of life, including symptoms of fibromyalgia, and showed improvement in brain functionality.

“In the future, we hope to be able to diagnose the so-called ‘psychological’ disorders through objective brain imaging,” says Dr. Amir Hadanny, a co-author of the study.