By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated June 22, 2012)
Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain syndrome afflicting between 3 and 6 million people in the U.S. It often occurs in conjunction with anxiety disorders and depression (Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 2012).
Fibromyalgia is typically diagnosed in middle age, and is more common in those with rheumatoid arthritis, spinal arthritis, and lupus, though it can occur without these conditions. The syndrome is more common among women than men, but is found in people of all ages, including children. Overall, fibromyalgia afflicts 3-5% of the U.S. population (American Fibromyalgia Syndrome Association, n.d.).
What Are the Symptoms of Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia causes muscles throughout the body to ache (and sometimes twitch, throb, stab, or burn). In addition to chronic pain, fibromyalgia symptoms include:
- Overwhelming exhaustion
- Sleep problems
- Morning stiffness
- Skin pain (for example, feeling sunburned)
- Temperature sensitivity
- Memory deficits
- Menstrual pain
- Difficulty concentrating
- Numbness or tingling sensations in the legs and arms
- Sensitivities to sounds, odours, bright lights, and certain foods and medications
In addition to anxiety and depression, conditions that often accompany fibromyalgia include restless legs syndrome and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Fibromyalgia symptoms tend to fluctuate over time and may be aggravated by cold environments, weather shifts (for example, storms), stress, anxiety, infections, hormonal fluctuations, repetitive motion, or prolonged tensing of one or more muscles.
Having fibromyalgia often makes it a struggle just to get through the day and complete necessary tasks. The muscles feel overworked and the body weighted down as though operating under a more intense gravity. The mind is often foggy, making it difficult to concentrate and remember things. For those who don’t have the disorder, the closest equivalent would be the achiness, exhaustion, sensitivity, and mental fogginess that come with a nasty flu accompanied by fever. Many people with fibromyalgia are so disabled that work becomes difficult or even impossible.
Fibromyalgia can be a lifelong condition, but it is not fatal or progressive, and there is the potential for improvement. According to the Fibromyalgia Network (n.d.), although 25% of sufferers see a worsening of symptoms over time, another 25% enjoy improvements. Differences in outcomes may be largely due to the treatments given, and whether or not the individuals have knowledgeable and sympathetic doctors.
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
It’s not known for sure what causes fibromyalgia. Although some people seem to develop it spontaneously, with no precipitating event, for many sufferers, fibromyalgia appears to be triggered by infections, injuries, or certain other disorders (lupus, hypothyroidism, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.). Although these events or maladies don’t cause fibromyalgia directly, they probably activate a latent tendency to develop the disorder.
Fibromyalgia is essentially a malfunction in the nervous system’s processing of pain. It may be caused by abnormalities in certain brain chemicals that regulate pain, dysfunction of the immune system, hormonal irregularities, problems with the autonomic nervous system, abnormalities in the physiological stress response, or other problems. Those with fibromyalgia have elevated levels of nerve growth factor and substance P (a chemical involved in pain) in their spinal fluid, indicating that there is a genuine physiological cause, though the disorder can be aggravated by stress.
There appears to be a genetic link, given that fibromyalgia runs in families in some cases, though a specific gene has not been identified.
How Is Fibromyalgia Diagnosed?
Fibromyalgia is difficult to diagnose because there is no particular test for it and the symptoms can indicate other medical conditions as well. A doctor must make a diagnosis based solely on the patient’s description of his or her symptoms.
Diagnosis may take some time, and often the patient must see multiple doctors to receive it because other medical conditions must be ruled out and some doctors are not open to the idea of fibromyalgia, assuming that the pain is all in the patient’s head. This is why it’s important to find a sympathetic doctor who is knowledgeable about fibromyalgia.
What Treatments Are Available for Fibromyalgia?
There are plenty of therapies for fibromyalgia. You may need to try a few to see which work best for you.
Medications and Complementary Therapies
There are medications available for treating fibromyalgia, but pharmaceutical treatment is more effective when multiple approaches are used (medication and other treatment). Fibromyalgia treatments include:
- Physical therapy
- Medication (to treat the fibromyalgia pain directly and/or to treat accompanying anxiety or depression that can make the condition worse)
- Various complementary therapies such as massage, acupuncture, yoga, warm water (bath, hot tub, shower), and the use of hot wraps on painful areas
- Lifestyle changes such as getting more exercise, increasing social support, and dietary modifications (lifestyle changes are described in more detail below)
Researchers at Harvard Medical School found that aerobic exercise, flexibility training, and strength training improved the physical and mental health of women with fibromyalgia (ADAA, 2012). Exercise is also a great treatment for the anxiety and depression that often accompany fibromyalgia.
While exercise can help, be careful not to overdo it at first – excessive physical activity aggravate fibromyalgia symptoms. Short bursts of mild exercise throughout the day may be more beneficial than long, intense workouts. It’s better to slowly, gently build your endurance over time than to stress your body with physical demands for which it is not prepared. Speak to your doctor and/or physical therapist to devise a suitable exercise plan.
You’re not alone – many others suffer from fibromyalgia, and social support can be helpful in dealing with the psychological aspects of this disorder. The following are some fibromyalgia support group options:
- Fibromyalgia Network Support Groups page (Canada and U.S.)
- UK Fibromyalgia Support Group (UK)
- Facebook Fibromyalgia Support Group (online)
- MDJunction’s Fibromyalgia Support Group (online)
Eating a healthy diet in with plenty of fresh produce, lean protein, and complex carbohydrates is beneficial. Although there is no proven fibromyalgia diet that works for all sufferers, there are some specific dietary changes that appear to help many people with fibromyalgia.
Some fibromyalgia sufferers find that their symptoms are aggravated by dairy products, sugar, corn, nightshade family foods (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, tobacco), gluten (wheat, oats, rye, barley), alcohol, coffee, tea, and red meat. Avoiding or reducing consumption of these foods may be beneficial for those with food sensitivities.
Treat Conditions That Often Accompany Fibromyalgia
Common problems associated with fibromyalgia include sleep difficulties, anxiety, depression, and migraines.
Improving sleep can bring significant improvement in fibromyalgia symptoms because there is a strong link between poor sleep and fibromyalgia. Talk to your doctor about sleep treatment options and see the How to Get Better Sleep page for natural ways to increase the likelihood of getting a good sleep.
Treating the anxiety and depression that often accompany fibromyalgia can provide great benefits as well. See the Depression page and the Natural Anxiety and Panic Disorder Treatments page for information about things you can do on your own, in addition to medical treatment, to reduce anxiety and depression.
Migraines often accompany fibromyalgia and worsen its symptoms. Treating migraines can provide significant relief for many fibromyalgia sufferers. See the Migraine page for more information.
Talk to your doctor to discuss options and develop a customized treatment plan that works for you.
For more information about Fibromyalgia, see the American Fibromyalgia Syndrome Association’s Resources page and the Fibromyalgia Coalition International website.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical or psychiatric advice. Medical concerns should be referred to a qualified doctor.
- American Fibromyalgia Syndrome Association. (n.d.). “What Is Fibromyalgia?” AFSAFund.org.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2012). “Fibromyalgia.” ADAA.org.
- Fibromyalgia Network. (n.d.). “Fibromyalgia FAQs.” FMNetNews.com.
- National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. (2011, July). “Questions and Answers About Fibromyalgia.” NIAMS.NIH.gov.
- UK Fibromyalgia. (2008). “What is Fibromyalgia?” UKFibromyalgia.com.