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Front Med (Lausanne). 2018 May 31;5:145. doi: 10.3389/fmed.2018.00145. eCollection 2018.

Chronic Diffuse Pain and Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders After Traumatic Stress: Pathophysiology Through a Polyvagal Perspective.

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Traumatic Stress Research Consortium, Kinsey Institute, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, United States.
Department of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, United States.


Chronic diffuse pain disorders, such as fibromyalgia, and functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs), such as irritable bowel syndrome, place substantial burden on those affected and on the medical system. Despite their sizable impact, their pathophysiology is poorly understood. In contrast to an approach that focuses on the correlation between heart rate variability (HRV) and a specific organ or symptom, we propose that a bio-evolutionary threat-related autonomic response-as outlined in the Polyvagal Theory-may serve as a plausible explanation of how HRV, particularly respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), would index the pathophysiology of these disorders. Evidence comes from: (1) the well-documented atypical autonomic regulation of the heart common to fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome reflected in dampened RSA, (2) the neural architecture that integrates the heart, pain pathways, and the gastrointestinal tract, (3) the common physical co-morbidities shared by chronic diffuse pain and FGIDs, many of which are functionally regulated by the autonomic nervous system, (4) the elevated risk of chronic diffuse pain and FGIDs following traumatic stress or abuse, (5) and the elevated risk of chronic diffuse pain and FGIDs in individuals with anxiety and panic disorders. This novel conceptualization points to a pathogenesis rooted in changes to brain-body autonomic feedback loops in response to evolutionarily-salient threat cues, providing an integrated biopsychosocial model of chronic diffuse pain and FGIDs and suggesting new, non-pharmacological treatment strategies.


chronic pain; fibromyalgia; functional gastrointestinal disorders; heart rate variability; irritable bowel syndrome; polyvagal theory; respiratory sinus arrhythmia; trauma

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