What’s the most annoying thing about fibromyalgia? Is it the constant pain? Or the fatigue that makes it impossible to do even the most basic tasks? Maybe it’s the fibro-fog that leaves you forgetting where you left your keys every morning. Fibromyalgia has a seemingly endless supply of those little knock-on symptoms that all compete for the title of “worst element of the disease.” But regardless of which one you decide on, you have to admit that formication is a strong contender for that title.
But even if you’re familiar with the symptoms of formication, you might not have heard the technical name before. You likely know what it is though: bugs under the skin. It’s a feeling like there is something crawling under your skin that you can’t scratch away. So what exactly causes it, why is it so common in people with fibromyalgia, and what can you do to treat it?
What Causes Formication?
First, some good news: while you might feel like there are bugs crawling under your skin, you can rest a little easier knowing that they aren’t actually there. It just feels exactly like they are. Small miracles, right?
So if it’s not actual bugs, what’s going on? Well, formication is frequently reported in people with mental health or substance abuse problems (particularly methamphetamine users). So obviously, there’s something going on with the brain. But obviously, you don’t have to use drugs to experience it since formication is what’s called a tactile hallucination and can affect almost anyone.
What isn’t obvious is why exactly the brain produces this hallucination in the first place. Essentially, your brain is registering the sensation of something crawling on or under your skin when this isn’t actually happening. So your nervous system, which usually determines when something is crawling on you and sends that information back to the brain, is sending those signals without the external influence of something touching you. But again, at the moment we don’t know why that happens.
But what we do know is that formication can be a very serious problem. People who suffer from it frequently scratch or pick at their skin while trying to find some relief from the maddening sensation of having bugs crawling under their skin. This results in horrible scarring or infections from open wounds. And the sensation can make it difficult to sleep, which results in all the usual health problems caused by sleep deprivation from diabetes to high blood pressure.
And yet another thing we don’t understand is why it seems to be associated with fibromyalgia so often.
As stated earlier, formication is rooted in a communication problem with the nervous system. This might explain why it’s so common in people with fibromyalgia. You see, it’s not the only nervous system disorder that frequently affects people with fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia sufferers often deal with other nervous system problems like irritable bowel syndrome or chronic itching. So with a clear link between all of these different nerve system disorders and fibromyalgia, it seems like the pain of fibromyalgia might actually be rooted in the nerves. Usually, your nervous system sends signals to the brain, which in turn interprets these signals. For instance, if you touch a hot stove your nerves send a signal that your finger tips are being burnt which your brain then interprets as pain and registers as occurring in your fingertips.
This is the way our body protects us from being injured, by making us want to pull our hands off of the hot stove. But in someone with fibromyalgia, those pain signals are being sent to the brain without any obvious cause. Your brain simply registers pain that isn’t there. And in cases of formication with fibromyalgia, those same faulty neural pathways are registering a sensation of bugs under your skin that isn’t there.
So it seems likely that the fact that people with fibromyalgia deal with sympathetic nervous system disorders like formication so often is due to these malfunctions in the nervous system. We don’t yet know for certain that this is true, and won’t until we understand what causes fibromyalgia or even just what causes formication, but this seems like a fairly solid explanation at the moment based on what we do know.