Associations Between Cognitive Performance and Pain in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Comorbidity with Fibromyalgia Does Matter


Ickmans K, Meeus M, De Kooning M, Lambrecht L, Pattyn N, Nijs J


Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Faculty of Physical Education & Physiotherapy, Brussels, Belgium

Published abstract


In addition to the frequently reported pain complaints, performance-based cognitive capabilities in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) with and without comorbid fibromyalgia (FM) are significantly worse than those of healthy controls. In various chronic pain populations, cognitive impairments are known to be related to pain severity. However, to the best of our knowledge, the association between cognitive performance and experimental pain measurements has never been examined in CFS patients.


This study aimed to examine the association between cognitive performance and self-reported as well as experimental pain measurements in CFS patients with and without FM.

Study design

Observational study.


The present study took place at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the University of Antwerp.


Forty-eight (18 CFS-only and 30 CFS+FM) patients and 30 healthy controls were studied. Participants first completed 3 performance-based cognitive tests designed to assess selective and sustained attention, cognitive inhibition, and working memory capacity. Seven days later, experimental pain measurements (pressure pain thresholds [PPT], temporal summation [TS], and conditioned pain modulation [CPM]) took place and participants were asked to fill out 3 questionnaires to assess self-reported pain, fatigue, and depressive symptoms.


In the CFS+FM group, the capacity of pain inhibition was significantly associated with cognitive inhibition. Self-reported pain was significantly associated with simple reaction time in CFS-only patients. The CFS+FM but not the CFS-only group showed a significantly lower PPT and enhanced TS compared with controls.


The cross-sectional nature of this study does not allow for inferences of causation.


The results underline disease heterogeneity in CFS by indicating that a measure of endogenous pain inhibition might be a significant predictor of cognitive functioning in CFS patients with FM, while self-reported pain appears more appropriate to predict cognitive functioning in CFS patients without FM.


Ickmans et al, Pain Physician, 2015 Sep–Oct; 18(5):E841–52


The study was funded by ME Research UK.

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