Researchers who set out to understand the role emotions play in fibromyalgia pain may have ended up dispelling a myth – that women with fibromyalgia are more emotionally sensitive than women who don’t have the condition.

Scientists at Utrecht University in the Netherlands asked 121 women to think about a personal experience that made them angry or sad. About half the women had fibromyalgia; the other half did not.

The researchers then exposed the brave souls who signed up for the study to painful electric shocks.

All women in the study felt more pain after becoming angry or sad. And the more emotion they felt, the more pain they reported.

Before becoming angry or sad, study participants, on average, rated their pain as 32 on a scale from 0 to100. That number jumped to 41 after they thought of an angry event and 42 after a sad one.

There was no difference seen between women who had fibromyalgia and those who did not.

The study, which was published in Arthritis Care & Research, may help to disavow the notion that people who have fibromyalgia are more emotionally sensitive than those without the mysterious illness, which is characterized by widespread pain and fatigue and mood, memory and sleep problems.

“We did not find that women with fibromyalgia were more sensitive to emotions than women without fibromyalgia,” says lead author Henriët van Middendorp, PhD, senior researcher in the Psychorheumatology Research Group at the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology of Utrecht University in The Netherlands. “However, because women with fibromyalgia already have heightened pain levels, the increase in pain due to negative emotions is troublesome, because the starting level of pain is already high.”

Researchers involved in the study say their findings suggest that techniques that reduce anger and sadness, including cognitive behavioral therapy and meditation, may play an important role in pain management.

“Many studies have shown that negative emotions and pain are associated, which likely reflects that pain causes negative feelings. However our study strongly suggests that negative emotions may also cause an increase of the pain,” van Middendorp says.

Robert S. Katz, MD, a rheumatologist and fibromyalgia expert at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago says this is a well done and interesting study that’s a valuable contribution to existing research, which he says includes few if any studies on emotional regulation in patients suffering from chronic pain.

“Since drugs only work partially in fibromyalgia, everyone is looking for lifestyle and other things to do. So emotional regulation techniques might be helpful,” Dr. Katz says.