Pain-related post-exertional malaise in ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia: A systematic review and three-level meta-analysis (Barhorst et al., 2021)
Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) and Fibromyalgia (FM) are two debilitating, moderately comorbid illnesses in which chronic musculoskeletal pain symptoms are prevalent. These individuals can experience post-exertional malaise (PEM), a phenomenon where symptom severity is worsened 24hr or longer following physical stress, but the pain-related component of PEM is not well characterized.
Systematic review and meta-analysis
Case-control studies involving adults with ME/CFS or FM and measuring pain symptoms before and after exposure to a standardized aerobic exercise test were included. Hedges’ d effect sizes were aggregated using random effects models and potential moderators were explored with meta-regression analysis. Results were adjusted for nesting effects using three-level modeling.
Forty-five effects were extracted from 15 studies involving 306 patients and 292 healthy controls. After adjusting for nesting effects, we observed a small-to-moderate effect indicating higher post-exercise pain in patients than controls (Hedges’ d=0.42; 95% CI: 0.16, 0.67). The mean effect was significantly moderated by pain measurement timepoint (b = -0.19, z = -2.57, P = 0.01) such that studies measuring pain 8-72hr post-exercise showed larger effects (d = 0.71, 95% CI = 0.28-1.14) than those measuring pain 0-2hr post-exercise (d = 0.32, 95% CI = 0.10-0.53).
People with ME/CFS and FM experience small-to-moderate increases in pain severity following exercise which confirms pain as a component of PEM and emphasizes its debilitating impact in ME/CFS and FM. Future directions include determining mechanisms of pain-related PEM and developing exercise prescriptions that minimize symptom exacerbation in these illnesses.