Pain catastrophizing is a key predictor of poor compliance to exercises among patients with fibromyalgia syndrome. Alteration of pain catastrophizing in this group is thus warranted. This study aimed to provide proof-of-concept of a novel virtual reality exposure therapy program as treatment for exercise-related pain catastrophizing in patients with fibromyalgia syndrome. An exploratory, case-controlled study was conducted (fibromyalgia syndrome group and matched control group). Functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to acquire neural correlates. The functional magnetic resonance imaging task consisted of two stimuli: active (exercise activity visuals) and passive (relaxing visuals). Structural images and blood-oxygenation-level-dependent contrasts were acquired for the conditions and compared within subjects/groups and between groups. Statistic images were thresholded using corrected clusters (determined by Z>2.3; level of significance: 0.05). Thirteen fibromyalgia syndrome subjects and nine healthy matched controls were included. The right inferior frontal gyrus, right middle frontal gyrus, right posterior cerebellum, left thalamus, and left supramarginal gyrus were activated in the fibromyalgia syndrome subjects.
The study results provide preliminary proof indicating that exposing patients with fibromyalgia syndrome to visuals of exercises elicits neurophysiological changes in functional brain areas associated with pain catastrophization and add to the current body of knowledge regarding the possibility of objectively identifying cognitive behavioral strategies like pain catastrophization.