What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder characterized with widespread pain in the muscles and bones, fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. Symptoms like these are considered subjective, meaning they can’t be determined or measured by tests. Because its symptoms are subjective and there isn’t a clear known cause, fibromyalgia is often misdiagnosed as another disease.
The lack of reproducible, objective tests for this disorder plays a role in some doctors questioning the disorder altogether. Although it’s more widely accepted in medical circles now than previously, some doctors and researchers don’t consider fibromyalgia a real condition.
The more that doctors begin to accept this diagnosis, the more likely the medical community is to explore effective ways of treating fibromyalgia.
Symptoms of Fibromyalgia
Fibromyalgia is often associated with areas of tenderness, which are called trigger points or tender points. These are places on your body where even light pressure can cause pain.
The pain caused by these trigger points can also be described as a consistent dull ache affecting many areas of your body. If you were to experience this pain for at least three months, doctors may consider this a symptom of fibromyalgia.
People with this disorder may also experience:
- inability to focus or difficulty paying attention
- trouble sleeping
- sleeping for long periods of time without feeling rested
- pain or dull aching in the lower abdomen
Symptoms may be a result of the brain and nerves misinterpreting or overreacting to normal pain signals. This may be due to a chemical imbalance in the brain.
Common trigger points include:
- back of the head
- tops of shoulders
- upper chest
- outer elbows
Trigger points are no longer the focus of diagnosis for fibromyalgia. Instead, doctors may make a diagnosis if you report widespread pain for more than three months and have no diagnosable medical condition that can explain the pain.
Causes of Fibromyalgia
Medical researchers and doctors don’t know what causes fibromyalgia. However, thanks to decades of research, they’re close to understanding factors that may work together to cause it.
These factors include:
- Infections: Prior illnesses may trigger fibromyalgia or make symptoms of the condition worse.
- Genetics: Fibromyalgia often runs in families. If you have a family member with this condition, your risk for developing it is higher. Researchers think certain genetic mutations may play a role in this condition. Those genes haven’t yet been identified.
- Trauma: People who experience physical or emotional trauma may develop fibromyalgia. The condition has been linked with post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Stress: Like trauma, stress can create long-reaching effects your body deals with for months and years. Stress has been linked to hormonal disturbances that could contribute to fibromyalgia.
- Doctors also don’t fully understand the factors that cause people to experience the chronic widespread pain associated with the condition. Some theories suggest it may be that the brain lowers the pain threshold. What once wasn’t painful becomes very painful over time.
- Another theory suggests that the nerves and receptors in the body become more sensitive to stimulation. That means they may overreact to pain signals and cause unnecessary or exaggerated pain.
Risk factors for Fibromyalgia
Although the causes are unclear, fibromyalgia flare-ups can be the result of
- physical trauma, or
- an unrelated systemic illness like the flu.
It’s believed the brain and nervous system may misinterpret or overreact to normal pain signals. This incorrect interpretation could be due to an imbalance in brain chemicals.
- Gender: According to NIAMS, women account for between 80 and 90 percent of all fibromyalgia cases. The reason for this isn’t known.
- Family history: If you have a family history of the condition, you may be at a greater risk for developing it.
- Disease: Although fibromyalgia isn’t a form of arthritis, having a rheumatic disease like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis may also increase your risk.
Updated guidelines recommend that a diagnosis be made if you experience an ongoing,
- widespread pain for three months or longer. This also includes pain that has no identifiable cause related to any other conditions.
There isn’t a lab test that can detect fibromyalgia. Instead, blood testing may be used to help rule out other potential causes of chronic pain.
Treatment of Fibromyalgia
The goal of fibromyalgia treatment is to manage pain and improve quality of life. This is often accomplished through a two-pronged approach of self-care and medication.
Common medications for fibromyalgia include:
- Pain relievers: Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol). Prescription versions, such as tramadol (Ultram), maybe be used in extreme cases. They’re used sparingly to reduce the risk of side effects and dependence.
- Antidepressants: Antidepressants, such as duloxetine (Cymbalta) and milnacipran (Savella), are sometimes used to help treat anxiety or depression associated with fibromyalgia. These medicines may also help improve sleep quality.
- Antiseizure drugs: Gabapentin (Neurontin) was designed to treat epilepsy, but it may help reduce symptoms in people with fibromyalgia. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also approved pregabalin (Lyrica) for the treatment of fibromyalgia.
Natural and alternative treatments
In addition to medication, a self-care plan can help you cope with the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Lifestyle changes and alternative remedies for fibromyalgia may reduce pain while making you feel better overall. Many of these alternative treatments focus on lowering stress and reducing pain. You can use most alone or together with mainstream medical treatments.
It’s important to note that most alternative treatments for fibromyalgia haven’t been thoroughly studied. Research to date fails to support their effectiveness. Many reports of success with alternative treatment are anecdotal.
These treatments include:
- physical therapy
- regular exercise
- getting enough sleep at night
- massage therapy
- a balanced, healthy diet
Therapy can potentially reduce stress that triggers the symptoms and depression often associated with this disorder. Group therapy is often the most affordable option, and it gives you an opportunity to meet others who are going through the same issues. Individual therapy is also available if you prefer one-on-one help. Ask your doctor for specific recommendations.
No specific diet has been identified for people with fibromyalgia. Some people report that they feel better by following a diet plan or avoiding certain foods, but research doesn’t support anything definite.
If you’ve been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, try to eat a healthy, balanced diet overall. Proper nutrition can help your body stay healthy and provide a constant supply of good energy. If your diet isn’t balanced and you’re not eating properly, your symptoms may worsen.
Dietary strategies to keep in mind:
- Eat fruits and vegetables.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Eat more plants than meat.
- Reduce your intake of sugar.
- Get regular exercise as best as you can.
- Lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
You may find that certain foods make your symptoms worse, or that you feel worse after eating a certain food frequently. If that’s the case, it’s a good idea to create a food diary where you can track what you’re eating and how you feel after the meal.
Present this food diary to your doctor. The two of you can work together to identify any foods that aggravate your symptoms. Avoiding those foods may be a good idea. But keep in mind that research hasn’t identified foods that are more likely to aggravate symptoms of fibromyalgia.
There isn’t a cure for fibromyalgia. Instead, treatment focuses on reducing your symptoms and improving your quality of life. This is often accomplished through the use of medications, self-care strategies, and lifestyle changes.
In addition, you may wish to seek out other people with the condition for support and guidance. Many hospitals and community health centers offer group therapy classes. These groups are a great way for people and their families to connect. They provide an opportunity for members to share resources and help guide each other through their journey.
To find a cure, researchers need to understand what causes people to develop this condition. This remains unclear.
Research has identified three areas that may contribute to the development of fibromyalgia:
- illness, and