Widespread aches and pains and severe fatigue are the hallmarks of fibromyalgia, a painful disease that affects nearly 2% of people. Fibromyalgia is a frustrating diagnosis for the many people who suffer from it, particularly because its causes are unknown and it often does not yield obvious signs on either physical exam or imaging tests. One of our viewers asked me to talk more about this debilitating condition:
Fibromyalgia is considered to be the most common cause of widespread musculoskeletal pain in women aged 20 to 55, and it becomes more common with increasing age. For unclear reasons, women are at least six times more likely than men to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Pain symptoms may begin at one specific place like the neck and shoulders, but soon generalize to affect multiple locations on both sides of the body, above and below the waist. Usually, the pain feels like it’s in the muscles, but it may also affect joints, and it tends to be long-lasting – dragging on for three months or more. People may also experience numbness, tingling, burning or other strange sensations in their limbs. Fatigue, or extreme tiredness, is another frequent feature.
Fibromyalgia is often associated with other health problems. Trouble with attention and mood are common. Depression and/or anxiety can be found in 30% to 50% of patients at the time of diagnosis, and tension and migraine headaches are present in about 50% of people. Sufferers may also be more likely to have irritable bowel syndrome, pelvic pain, or bladder and sexual dysfunction, among other problems. A family history of fibromyalgia or a personal history of rheumatic disease like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus increases risk, but other risk factors are not well documented.
Ever since it was first described in the mid-1800s, fibromyalgia has been a controversial and difficult disease to study and diagnose. There are usually no outward signs of fibromyalgia that can be found on physical exam, except that sufferers may be tender in multiple specific points on the body. Blood tests and diagnostic imaging also do not reveal any abnormalities that could explain the symptoms. Though doctors may run several blood tests to rule out other problems, ultimately it’s the description of symptoms that shapes the diagnosis.
There is currently no cure for this difficult disease, but there are many things that can help patients cope with it. First, it’s crucial that people with fibromyalgia take good care of themselves. This includes managing stress, maintaining regular sleep habits with minimal napping, exercising regularly (include aerobic exercise, stretching and strengthening exercises – even if this increases pain at first, it is likely to help over time), knowing when you need to scale back activities to rest, and eating a healthy diet with limited caffeine.
If you suffer from fibromyalgia, your doctor can also help develop a treatment plan that’s right for you. Pain medications may help, but it’s very important to avoid any medication that may become addictive, since pain symptoms may be long-lasting and certain drugs may increase addiction risk. Be sure to ask your doctor how much and how long to take any pain medication and don’t exceed his or her recommendation. Antidepressants, anti-seizure drugs, and therapy are also frequently used and may help significantly. There are also many support groups for fibromyalgia sufferers where people can share the techniques they’ve developed to cope with their symptoms.