SEATTLE - Fibromyalgia affects almost six million Americans, but the cause is still unknown.
Now local doctors are using a new type of MRI screening that's providing some surprising answers, as well as a new way to treat patients who've never been able to find relief.
Shelley Moore suffers from fibromyalgia.
"I was tender to the touch," she said. "I could just touch my body in different places and it would hurt."
"We know what fibromyalgia is, but what we didn't know is that two thirds of patients with that have another problem with that we weren't addressing," said Dr. Andrew Holman, Valley Medical Center.
That problem doesn't show up on a standard MRI. So doctors at Valley Medical Center are using a new approach.
Radiologist Kennneth Reger shows how Moore's spinal cord is being pinched.
"Some of the ligaments are being inpinged. It really narrows the spinal cord," said Reger. "When she bends forward and flexes her head it opens the spinal cord enough so that there's more fluid along the spinal cord and less compression."
Which may explain why patients like Moore don't respond to conventional therapy.
"It's one of the biggest breakthroughs in my 16-year career in rheumatology," said Holman.
Holman's patients now undergo spinal cord rehab.
"We teach people to line up their ear with their shoulder with their hip their knee and their ankles," said Sue Horton, physical therapist at Star Physical Therapy.
The goal is to use muscles for support, not the skeleton.
"As my muscles started to get stronger, I started to hurt less and movement was easier and I was sleeping better too," said Moore.
It's not known if spinal cord compression causes fibromyalgia or just makes it worse. Holman is conducting another study to find out if the condition also shows up in people without symptoms.
So far, the specialized MRIs are only available at Valley Medical. The protocol is also being introduced at Oregon Health Sciences Center, Johns Hopkins and the University of Texas.