The Art of Drawing a Blank : Fibromyalgia and Memory 

Okay, so you’re still looking for that slip of paper with your doctor’s new phone number on it. And you have yet to recover from the embarrassment of driving around town with the grocery bag perched on top of your car. And you still worry that your new boss will never forgive you for “blanking” on his name when you tried to introduce him to an important client. In short, it’s hard to deny that your memory just isn’t what it used to be. Does that mean you have a problem? If so, is fibromyalgia (FM) the cause? Or is there some other culprit? Or both? The answers to these questions may surprise you.

This article first appeared in the Fibromyalgia Magazine. Why not subscribe and receive the latest Fibromyalgia News every month?

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What probably won’t surprise you is that to date very little research has been done on the subject of memory and FM. This article will explore available findings and offer insights which will at the very least help you make peace with yourself. First, a few basics on how memory works (and when it doesn’t). As is widely known, there are two types of memory: short-term and long-term. Short-term memory, also known as active or working memory, consists of the day-to-day details that people consciously pay attention to at any one time: the physical objects that surround them, the conversations or sensory information they are taking in, and the activities or projects in which they are engaged. In contrast, long-term memory is a permanent storage area where factual information, recollections of personal experiences, and knowledge of particular skills (i.e., riding a bike or driving a car) are retained.

Psychologist Kenneth Higbee, Ph.D., compares short-term memory to the in-basket on an office desk which has a limited capacity to hold information and must therefore be “emptied” regularly before new material can be placed there. [1]  Information which is emptied is either discarded permanently (i.e., the phone number of a local carryout restaurant that you look up but don’t need to remember) or is sent on to long-term memory, a series of filing cabinets used for permanent storage. Unlike short-term memory, long-term memory has virtually unlimited capacity and is not easily disrupted by environmental “noise”. It also changes very little with age. It is helpful to think about memory as consisting of three stages: (1) the acquisition of information, (2) the storage of information, and (3) the retrieval of information when it is needed. When we forget things, we tend to blame our retrieval powers.

However, according to Cynthia Green, Ph.D., of the Memory Enhancement Program at Mt. Sinai (NY) School of Medicine, the most common reason that healthy adults have problems with memory is because of their failure to focus on new information. [2 ] In other words, they aren’t paying very good attention in the first place so they never actually learn the new material they will later try to remember. Of course, people often fail to pay proper attention to things that aren’t particularly interesting to them or have little emotional impact. However, there are also a number of factors which simply get in the way of memory and can cause even “healthy” people significant problems. Many of these factors are also relevant to people with FM.

Factors Which Interfere With Memory
Multiple Tasks: Many people suffer from information overload. They may have many competing tasks to perform during a given period of time or have pressing demands from a wide variety of sources (work, family, friends, etc.). As a result, they must process an amazing amount of information, some of which comes at them with a speed or complexity which makes remembering difficult. Ironically, simple things that should be easily recalled (like the location of car keys or even the car itself) are frequently forgotten because they involve routine activities (i.e., parking the car) which are done quickly and often unconsciously amidst a maze of other involvements.

Emotional State: Depression and anxiety are two variables which have been a central focus in the study of memory. Depression is of interest because it can cause problems with attention, perception, speed of cognitive response, problem-solving, and memory and learning. [3]  People who are depressed tend to be preoccupied with other concerns and find it difficult to concentrate on new tasks, particularly those requiring prolonged attention or the complex processing of information. The good news is that when depression gets better, either with time or with medical treatment, memory usually improves as well. [4]

The term “stage fright” is already familiar to most people. Many comic sketches have portrayed actors or comedians fumbling desperately for lines they have spent hundreds of hours memorizing. Thus, it is no surprise to learn that anxiety can be a formidable foe to the acquisition, storage, and retrieval of information, though it can be beneficial in boosting performance in small doses. [5]
Fatigue: Whether from lack of restful sleep, overdoing it, or conditions like sleep apnea, fatigue can have significant effects on memory because it often impedes attention and concentration. Some researchers also believe that it makes retrieving information from long-term memory difficult, even familiar or easy-to-      remember items. [6]  Likewise, stress in general (particularly chronic stress) can have a negative effect on memory because it is a powerful distraction and contributes to fatigue.

Medications: If you take medications regularly for fibromyalgia, you already know that they can cause grogginess or other side effects which make concentration and recall difficult. Antihistamines, anti-anxiety drugs, painkillers, beta blockers, and some anti-depressants are particular culprits in this regard. Drug interactions can be problematic as well. While it may be imprudent for FM patients to discontinue medications which happen to impair memory, knowing that such side effects exist can also provide peace of mind. Maybe your memory isn’t so faulty after all!

Illness: There is no question that illness or disease can interfere with memory. Not only can a cold or the flu impair one’s ability to retain or recall information, but many chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, endocrine imbalance, and multiple sclerosis can also worsen memory. [7]  There is also mounting evidence that chronic fatigue syndrome, a medical condition which overlaps with fibromyalgia, can cause difficulties with recall. In many chronic health conditions, impairment often improves as the underlying illness is treated.

This article first appeared in the Fibromyalgia Magazine. Why not subscribe and receive the latest Fibromyalgia News every month?

More information here.

Reprinted with permission from Fibromyalgia Frontiers (Vol. 8 #1), the official quarterly journal of the National Fibromyalgia Partnership. Website:



  1. Kenneth Higbee, Ph.D., Your Memory: How It Works & How to Improve It (Second Edition). New York: Marlowe & Company, 1999, pp. 24-25.
  2. Cynthia R. Green, Ph.D., Total Memory Workout: Eight Easy Steps to Maximum Memory Fitness. New York: Bantam Books, 1999, p. 25.
  3. Robert F. Schnurr, Ph.D., and Michael R. MacDonald, Ph.D., “Memory Complaints in Chronic Pain,” The Clinical Journal of Pain, 11(2): 103-111, June 1995, p. 104.
  4. Green, pp. 60-61.
  5. Higbee, p. 64.
  6. Green, pp. 52-53.