Fibromyalgia is a common, chronic and widespread pain disorder characterized by a dull, deep pain in the muscles and tendons that may be felt throughout the body. There are as many as 10 million Americans that suffer from this disorder. Anyone can develop fibromyalgia; however, 80 to 90 percent of those diagnosed are middle-age women.
Although any part of the body can be affected, the most common sites of pain are the neck, back, hands and pelvis. These sites are called “tender points.” The pain of fibromyalgia is often described as aching, nagging and exhausting. Muscles become tender to the touch with flu-like aching.
People with fibromyalgia tend to sleep lightly and awaken frequently during the night, which increases fibromyalgia pain and stiffness. They wake feeling exhausted and are extremely fatigued throughout the day. Fibromyalgia is not a psychological disorder, but feelings of depression and anxiety commonly accompany it.
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
Doctors have reason to believe that fibromyalgia is hereditary. In people who are more likely to develop fibromyalgia, certain events tend to trigger the illness, including accidents and injuries, autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, and infections. In addition, studies have shown that more pain signals are sent to the brain and spinal cord of people with fibromyalgia, making them more sensitive to pain.
Fibromyalgia can be difficult to diagnose. No tests confirm the presence of the illness, and its symptoms are similar to those of many other conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and hyperthyroidism. A doctor might first conduct tests to see if any of these other illnesses are the cause of symptoms.
The American College of Rheumatology has developed a set of criteria for physicians to help identify whether someone has fibromyalgia:
- Pain, based on the total number of painful areas out of 19 parts of the body, plus severity of fatigue, waking unrefreshed, and cognitive problems
- Symptoms lasting at least three months
- No other health problems that would explain the pain and other symptoms
While living with fibromyalgia can be challenging, there are ways to effectively manage the illness:
Medication: Three prescription medications have been approved for the treatment of fibromyalgia. The first to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat fibromyalgia was pregabalin (Lyrica®); the second was duloxetine (Cymbalta®); and the third was milnacipran (Savella®). In addition, over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium), sleep medications, antidepressants (tricyclic antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and mixed reuptake inhibitors), muscles relaxants and anti-seizure medications are all used to treat the pain associated with fibromyalgia.
Exercise: Studies have shown that the pain of fibromyalgia can be eased with gentle exercise such as walking, jogging, yoga, stretching or riding a stationary bike. It’s important to always check with a doctor before starting any exercise program and to start slowly. Intense exercise can make fibromyalgia symptoms worse.
Sleep management: Sleep can be improved by going to sleep at the same time every night, maintaining a cool room, limiting caffeine (coffee, tea, cola and chocolate) and avoiding alcohol before bedtime, exercising in the afternoon, limiting naps earlier in the day to no more than 20 minutes, and developing a relaxing bedtime routine, such as playing soft music or taking a bath.
Emotional support: Studies have shown that a type of talk therapy called cognitive behavior therapy can help some people with fibromyalgia manage their pain and improve functioning. Support groups led by trained counselors may provide important information about the condition and encourage discussion of issues of concern to people with fibromyalgia.
Complimentary therapies: Acupuncture, yoga, therapeutic massage, light aerobics, acupressure, training in breathing techniques, chiropractic manipulation, physical therapy, water therapy and many other complimentary therapies can be beneficial to people with fibromyalgia.
American College of Rheumatology. “Fibromyalgia” (accessed Aug. 17, 2017).
Center for Drug Evaluation and Research and U.S. Food and Drug Administration, The Voice of the Patient(Report dated October 2014).
National Fibromyalgia Association. “About Fibromyalgia.” (accessed Aug. 17, 2017).
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. “Questions and Answers About Fibromyalgia” (accessed Aug. 17, 2017).