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tDCS for Fibromyalgia: Efficacy of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (2024 Review)

A recent systematic review and meta-analysis aimed to update the understanding of the efficacy and safety of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) for treating fibromyalgia (FM), focusing on its effects on analgesia, antidepressant outcomes, and the reduction of FM’s impact.


  • Efficacy of tDCS: The analysis revealed that tDCS is effective in reducing pain intensity, depression scores, and the overall impact of FM on patients’ lives. Specifically, stimulation of the primary motor cortex (M1) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) was found to be most effective for achieving clinically important differences in pain relief and depression reduction, respectively.
  • Safety of tDCS: tDCS was found to be safe, with only mild adverse events reported. There was no significant difference in the rates of adverse events between active tDCS and sham tDCS groups, suggesting the intervention’s tolerability.
  • Subgroup Analysis: Subgroup analysis based on different regional stimulations (M1, DLPFC, opercular-insular cortex (OIC), and occipital nerve (ON) regions) provided insights into the effects of tDCS on FM symptoms, indicating that the stimulation site plays a crucial role in achieving minimal clinically important differences for analgesia and antidepressant effects.
  • Moderate Certainty of Evidence: The study described the certainty of the evidence as moderate, due to heterogeneity among the included studies and inconsistency in results, which suggests a need for further research.

Source: Neurophysiologie Clinique (2024)

What is tDCS?

Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) is a non-invasive brain stimulation technique that has been gaining attention in the medical community for its potential to treat various neurological conditions and psychiatric disorders, including fibromyalgia (FM).

tDCS works by applying a small direct current through the scalp, which penetrates the skull to reach the brain. This current is capable of altering the resting membrane potential of neurons in the targeted cortical areas. There are two types of stimulation:

  • Anodal tDCS: Typically increases neuronal excitability by depolarizing the neurons, making them more likely to fire.
  • Cathodal tDCS: Generally decreases neuronal excitability by hyperpolarizing neurons, making them less likely to fire.

The exact physiological mechanisms are complex and involve changes in synaptic strength, modulation of neurotransmitter release, and alterations in brain networks’ connectivity patterns.

The effects of tDCS are not merely localized but can also influence connected brain regions, leading to widespread modulation of brain activity.

Why tDCS Might Be Useful in Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain, fatigue, sleep disturbances, and often, cognitive and emotional difficulties.

The potential usefulness of tDCS in treating FM lies in its ability to address several of the condition’s core features/symptoms.

  • Pain Modulation: By targeting areas of the brain involved in pain processing, such as the primary motor cortex (M1) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), tDCS can modulate pain perception and tolerance, potentially reducing the chronic pain experienced by FM patients.
  • Cognitive Improvement: tDCS can also have positive effects on cognitive functions, such as attention, memory, and executive functioning, which are often impaired in individuals with FM. Stimulating areas like the DLPFC may help mitigate these cognitive symptoms, commonly referred to as “fibro fog.”
  • Mood Regulation: FM is frequently associated with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. tDCS has shown promise in improving mood by modulating the activity of the DLPFC, a region implicated in emotional regulation.
  • Sleep & Fatigue: Preliminary evidence suggests that tDCS may improve sleep quality and reduce fatigue, which are significant concerns for individuals with FM. This improvement could be due to the modulation of brain circuits involved in sleep regulation and energy metabolism.

Major Findings: tDCS for Fibromyalgia Treatment (2024 Review)

Chun-Lan Yang et al. conducted a systematic review on the efficacy and safety of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) for treating fibromyalgia (FM) – below are the major reported findings.

1. Pain Relief Efficacy

Overall Effectiveness: Active tDCS demonstrated a positive effect on reducing pain intensity with a significant standardized mean difference (SMD) of -1.04. This indicates a moderate to large effect size, suggesting that tDCS is effective in alleviating pain in FM patients.

Primary Motor Cortex (M1) & Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC) Stimulation: Subgroup analyses identified that only the M1 and DLPFC regions achieved the minimal clinically important difference (MCID) for analgesia. The mean differences (MDs) in these groups were -1.57 and -1.44, respectively, surpassing the MCID threshold for pain relief on an 11-point scale.

2. Antidepressant Effects

Overall Reduction in Depression: tDCS also showed a favorable impact on depression scores among FM patients, with an SMD of -0.46. This suggests a moderate effect size and indicates tDCS’s potential as an adjunct treatment for depression in FM.

DLPFC Stimulation for Depression: Remarkably, stimulation of the DLPFC was the only subgroup to achieve an MCID change in the Beck Depression Inventory-II (BDI-II), with an MD of -5.36, highlighting its specific efficacy in treating depression symptoms in FM patients.

3. Impact on Fibromyalgia

Reduction in FM Impact: The analysis showed that active tDCS could reduce the impact of FM on patients’ lives, as evidenced by improvements in the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire (FIQ) scores with an SMD of -0.73. This finding underscores tDCS’s role in enhancing the quality of life for individuals with FM.

Subgroup Analysis for FM Impact: While tDCS showed benefits across various subgroups, only the occipital nerve (ON) region’s stimulation achieved an MCID in improving the FIQ score, with an MD of -15.03. This suggests that certain stimulation sites may be more effective for specific FM symptoms.

4. Safety & Tolerability

Mild Adverse Events: The study found tDCS to be safe, with adverse events being mild and not significantly different between active and sham tDCS groups. The most common adverse events included headache, local tingling, and redness, which were temporary and tolerable.

Moderate Certainty of Evidence: Despite the positive findings, the certainty of the evidence was described as moderate due to heterogeneity and inconsistency among the included studies. This suggests the need for further, more standardized research to solidify these findings.

Using tDCS for Fibromyalgia

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) has emerged as a promising non-invasive intervention for fibromyalgia (FM), a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain, fatigue, sleep disturbances, and often, depressive symptoms.

Understanding how to effectively utilize tDCS for FM involves recognizing which patients are likely to benefit, the specific protocols and brain region targets, the required number of sessions for noticeable results, and the duration of the therapeutic effects.

Eligible Patients

Patients with fibromyalgia (FM) experiencing chronic pain, depressive symptoms, and a significant impact on their quality of life despite conventional treatments may benefit from tDCS.

Those with a preference for non-pharmacological interventions or with contraindications to standard FM medications are ideal candidates.

Specific Protocols & Brain Region Targets

  • Primary Motor Cortex (M1) and Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC) are the most effective stimulation sites for analgesia and antidepressant effects, respectively.
  • The standard protocol involves a current of 2 mA for 20 minutes per session.
  • The frequency of sessions varies, with a common regimen being daily sessions for the first few weeks followed by maintenance sessions.

Number of Sessions & Duration of Effect

  • A minimum of 10-20 sessions is often recommended to achieve significant improvements in pain and depressive symptoms.
  • The effects of tDCS can last several weeks to months post-treatment, with maintenance sessions potentially prolonging these benefits.

tDCS for Fibromyalgia (Mechanisms of Action)

Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) is a non-invasive brain stimulation technique that has shown promise in treating fibromyalgia (FM), a complex chronic pain syndrome.

The specific mechanisms by which tDCS may alleviate FM symptoms involve a combination of neurophysiological, neurochemical, and psychological processes.

Understanding these mechanisms is crucial for optimizing tDCS protocols and enhancing its therapeutic efficacy.

Neurophysiological Mechanisms

Modulation of Cortical Excitability: tDCS influences neuronal activity by altering the resting membrane potential of neurons in the targeted brain regions. Anodal stimulation typically increases cortical excitability, promoting neuronal firing, while cathodal stimulation decreases excitability. In FM, anodal tDCS applied over the M1 or DLPFC can enhance pain inhibition pathways and modulate pain perception.

Normalization of Abnormal Brain Activity: FM is associated with altered brain activity in areas involved in pain processing and regulation, such as increased activity in the somatosensory cortex and decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex. tDCS can help normalize this activity, reducing hyperexcitability in pain-related areas and enhancing the function of regions involved in pain modulation.

Neurochemical Mechanisms

Alteration of Neurotransmitter Levels: tDCS can influence the concentration of various neurotransmitters, including glutamate, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and dopamine, which play key roles in pain perception and mood regulation. By modulating these neurotransmitters, tDCS may decrease pain sensitivity and improve depressive symptoms commonly associated with FM.

Enhancement of Endogenous Opioid Release: Some evidence suggests that tDCS may stimulate the release of endogenous opioids, contributing to its analgesic effects. This mechanism can provide natural pain relief and improve the overall pain threshold in FM patients.

Psychological Mechanisms

Improvement in Sleep & Fatigue: By modulating cortical activity and neurotransmitter levels, tDCS may also improve sleep quality and reduce fatigue in FM patients, which are significant contributors to the disease’s symptomatology and patients’ quality of life.

Cognitive and Emotional Regulation: Targeting the DLPFC, known for its role in cognitive and emotional processing, tDCS can improve cognitive function and emotional regulation. This can lead to reduced perceived stress and anxiety, factors that often exacerbate FM symptoms.

Conclusion: tDCS for Fibromyalgia

The systematic review and meta-analysis provide compelling evidence that transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is an effective and safe intervention for reducing pain intensity, alleviating depressive symptoms, and diminishing the overall impact of fibromyalgia (FM) on patients’ lives.

Specifically, stimulation of the primary motor cortex (M1) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) emerges as particularly beneficial for managing pain and depression, respectively.

The findings underscore the potential of tDCS as a valuable addition to the therapeutic arsenal against FM, offering a non-invasive, well-tolerated alternative or complement to existing treatments.

However, the moderate certainty of the evidence and observed heterogeneity across studies highlight the need for further research, especially in standardizing tDCS protocols, to fully understand its long-term efficacy and optimal application.

Additional studies should aim to delineate the precise parameters that maximize therapeutic outcomes and explore the durability of tDCS effects over time.

Overall, this study marks a significant step forward in the non-pharmacological management of FM, paving the way for more personalized and effective treatment strategies.


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