‘The Princess and the Pea’

As a child ‘The Princess and the Pea’ was one of my favourite fairy tales sitting on a shelf above my bed. Published by Hans Christian Anderson in 1835 it relates the story of the Prince who longed to marry not just any girl but a ‘real’ Princess. A girl arrives bedraggled in the rain at his castle one night claiming that she was a ‘real’ Princess and the Queen decides to test her claim to nobility by placing a pea under 20 mattresses and 20 feather eiderdowns. Asked the following morning how she slept, the princess replies ‘very badly – I was lying on something very hard and feel black and blue all over’. The Queen then knew that this girl was a ‘true’ Princess as only a ‘true’ Princess could feel a pea underneath so many layers.

Any sufferer of Fibromyalgia will relate to this, and it has been suggested that this extreme sensitivity is one of the first and probably best metaphors of this poorly understood but very debilitating condition.

So what is Fibromyalgia? Best described as a syndrome it is often misunderstood by the medical profession. It is a condition involving widespread muscle pain and fatigue and unfortunately, as yet, there is no definitive test that exists to prove that a patient has it.

In many cases it is thought to be triggered by a viral illness. Research shows that there are a definite subset of patients who have had Glandular Fever (Epstein-Barr virus), Lyme Disease, Parvovirus, Herpes virus and Cytomegalovirus.

Other factors come into play such as genetics, hormones, poor sleep, environmental stimuli (weather, chemical sensitivity) and psychological distress.

With the advent of brain imaging we are now able to see definite changes in parts of the brain, particularly the insula in patients who develop this ‘central sensitivity’ as studies have shown heightened brain responses to pain. Some studies are starting to look and see abnormal levels of neurochemicals too.

Hopefully it won’t be too long before there is a more positive, constructive approach to managing this dis-ease. The patient often has to cope with the added problem of not being taken seriously. In many cases the scepticism from medical professionals and family and friends about whether it is ‘all in the mind’ further adds to the distress.


  1. Dear Dr Kate,
    Thank you very much for retweeting some of my tweets about Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome – Hypermobility Type.

    I wonder if there would be any opportunity for us to do some work together? I am not sure what I have in mind here, but I am very keen to develop my lecturing/workshop work – and wonder if you have any thoughts – especially as I do want to target medical professionals.

    I like your Princess and the Pea story – it is so spot on!

    With best wishes,
    Isobel Knight
    07947 475082

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