Whether you have been recently diagnosed or have suffered from fibromyalgia for years –it is important to learn about your condition. This article explains what fibromyalgia is, who gets it, what causes it, and how fibromyalgia is diagnosed and treated.
What is Fibromyalgia Syndrome?
Fibromyalgia, also called fibromyalgia syndrome, is the most common chronic pain condition. The pain of fibromyalgia can be dull, stabbing, throbbing or burning. It can be constant or can come and go. The intensity can vary as well.
But fibromyalgia is a whole lot more than pain. It makes you exhausted, disturbs your sleep and clouds your thinking. FMS is a complex condition and seems to affect every part of your body.
The medical definition of fibromyalgia is; A disorder of unknown cause characterized by chronic widespread soft-tissue pain accompanied by weakness, fatigue, and sleep disturbances. A syndrome is a group of symptoms which consistently occur together. Hence, the name: Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS).
FMS is considered a nervous system disorder. It seems that fibromyalgia pain comes from the brain and spinal cord. The condition is believed to be associated with disturbances in how the brain processes pain and other sensory information.
Based on research, people with fibromyalgia syndrome process pain differently than those without FM. We experience pain more easily and different parts of the brain are activated in response to that pain.
We have an increased response to painful stimuli. We also experience pain from non-painful stimuli like bright lights, sounds, touch or pressure from clothing on the skin.
Because fibromyalgia involves the brain and nervous system, it can have an impact on virtually every part of your body.
Who Gets Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia can affect anyone of any age or gender. It’s estimated that about 10 million Americans suffer from fibromyalgia. One in 20 people worldwide is affected by this chronic pain syndrome.
Women are more likely to have fibromyalgia than men. Between 80 and 90 percent of those affected are female. The average age, when diagnosed, is between 20 and 55 years.
People with rheumatoid arthritis and lupus are at an increased risk of developing fibromyalgia syndrome.
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
An exact cause of fibromyalgia is still a mystery. However, research has identified several factors that may be involved in causing fibromyalgia. Along with several risk factors, that may increase your chance of developing the syndrome.
Fibromyalgia has been linked to:
- Genetics – A family history of fibromyalgia increases a person’s chance of developing FM. The National Institute of Arthritis, Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) states that a person’s genes may regulate the way his or her body processes painful stimuli. Scientists speculate that people with fibromyalgia may carry one or more genes that cause them to react strongly to stimuli that most people would not perceive as painful.
- Traumatic Events – For many people, symptoms begin after emotional or physical trauma. These may not cause fibromyalgia but may trigger the onset in people who are already at risk for it.
- Sleep Disorders – It is not known if sleep problems are a symptom or a cause of fibromyalgia. However, people who have disorders affecting sleep such as sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome are more likely to have FM.
- Infections or Illnesses – Fibromyalgia coexists in unusually high frequency with certain illnesses such as rheumatic diseases, lupus, and chronic hepatitis C infection, among others.
- Prolonged Stress – Chronic stress can cause changes in various hormones and neurotransmitters that can cause pain and fatigue. Some experts suggest certain factors may inappropriately trigger a person’s stress response and contribute to the development of fibromyalgia.
- Extra Nerve Fibers – Some people with fibromyalgia have extra nerve fibers in their hands. The excess nerve fibers accumulate around tiny muscular valves or “shunts” in the palms of the hands. The shunts act as thermostats that regulate body heat. That may explain why people with FM often have painful or tender hands and are sensitive to weather changes. The shunts could also be interfering with the flow of blood to muscles and organs throughout the body, which would account for the widespread pain and fatigue that occurs in fibromyalgia.
- Inflammation – Some researchers feel that chronic inflammation along with an altered immune system may either be the cause or contribute to fibromyalgia. Multiple studies have revealed several markers of inflammation in people with fibromyalgia.
- Mitochondrial Dysfunction – The main function of mitochondria is to take in nutrients, break them down and create energy. Multiple studies suggest that mitochondrial dysfunction could play a significant role in fibromyalgia. What’s more, almost every single symptom of fibromyalgia can be explained by mitochondrial dysfunction.
It’s possible there is no single cause for fibromyalgia. But rather a series of events that lead to the development of fibromyalgia.
In my case, my childhood could be described as emotionally traumatic. I had sleeping problems since childhood. I was diagnosed with hepatitis C and may have been infected when I was 12 years old. Also, there may be a genetic factor. Both, my grandmother and aunt had many of the symptoms of fibromyalgia.
What Are The Symptoms of Fibromyalgia?
Although chronic widespread pain is the primary symptom, we may each feel the pain in different ways. For some, the pain and stiffness are worse when they wake up. Then it improves during the day. The pain may increase again at night. But other people have all-day, non-stop pain.
Almost everyone with fibromyalgia syndrome suffers from fatigue and has trouble sleeping and thinking clearly. Many have trouble with depression and anxiety. Many have chronic daily headaches. Some people with fibromyalgia may also be more sensitive to things around them. This may include temperature, bright lights, loud sounds, and more.
Fibromyalgia can affect every part of your body. The key to coping with the unpredictable nature of fibromyalgia is understanding how the condition affects you, personally.
How is Fibromyalgia Syndrome Diagnosed?
Diagnosing fibromyalgia is a difficult process. The symptoms of fibromyalgia are also found in many other conditions. In the past, people with fibromyalgia were often misdiagnosed as having depression, arthritis or lupus. Fibromyalgia is a distinct condition but there is no simple test to diagnose it. It doesn’t show up in an x-ray or MRI.
Treatment depends on an accurate diagnosis. So, it’s important to determine if your symptoms are caused by fibromyalgia or another underlying condition. Plus, fibromyalgia can be a primary condition or a secondary condition. Primary means the cause is unknown. Whereas, with secondary fibromyalgia, the causes can be identified. Primary fibromyalgia is the most common form.
The diagnostic criteria, set by The American College of Rheumatology (ACR), consists of the following:
- Widespread pain lasting longer than 3 month
- Self-reported symptoms and the severity of symptoms
- Ruling out other disorders that would explain the symptoms
If you have yet to be diagnosed, the process can be frustrating. You may want to read:
There is no one “pill” that treats or cures fibromyalgia. Treatment involves minimizing symptoms and improving general health. There are many treatment options available. A range of medications and alternative treatments can help relieve pain and other symptoms.
There are three medications approved by the FDA to treat fibromyalgia syndrome. Lyrica, Cymbalta, and Savella. Plus there are many other medications that are used to treat fibromyalgia symptoms. These may include pain medications, muscle relaxers, sleeping pills, and antidepressants. Sometimes medications are not effective. They may not provide enough relief, or side effects may outweigh the benefits.
A multidisciplinary approach that uses medication, alternative remedies and lifestyle strategies seem to work best to treat fibromyalgia symptoms. Exercise, diet changes, herbal supplements, and other alternative options often provide better relief than medication.
Treatment depends on the individual and their particular symptoms. What works for me, may not work for you. So, if something doesn’t work, don’t give up! Continue to try different treatment options until you find one that’s right for you.
Will You Get Better?
If you have recently been diagnosed, you may be wondering what the future holds. Will you get better? Or will you get worse?
The course of fibromyalgia varies with the individual. Some experts say that one-third of us make significant improvements. Another third stay the same. The remaining third see worsening of their symptoms.
It may not be easy however, I believe it is possible to tilt the odds in your favor. The first step is to accept the reality of your illness and the need to lead a different kind of life. Because fibromyalgia syndrome can vary in severity, you have to learn your own personal limitations. Then try to live consistently within those limitations.