Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that affects about 5 million Americans. Doctors diagnose fibromyalgia based on a patient’s symptoms and physical exam. While pain is one of the main symptoms of the disease, there are numerous other symptoms that often accompany the pain. Not all patients have the same symptoms and for this reason along with others, fybromyalgia (FMS) is one of the most difficult diseases to diagnose.
Patients experience pain and stiffness in the muscles, but there are no measurable findings on X-rays or lab tests. While fibromyalgia does not damage the joints or organs, the constant aches and fatigue can have a significant impact on daily life.
The hallmark of fibromyalgia is muscle pain throughout the body, typically accompanied by other symptoms and specific tender point locations on the body. The next most common symptom is fatigue. This is not the normal tiredness that follows a busy day, but a lingering feeling of exhaustion. People with fibromyalgia may feel tired first thing in the morning, even after hours spent in bed. The fatigue may be worse on some days than others and can interfere with work, physical activity, and household chores.
Many people with fibromyalgia have sleep problems, including trouble falling asleep or frequent awakenings during the night. Studies suggest some patients remain in a shallow state of sleep and never experience restful, deep sleep. This deprives the body of a chance to repair and replenish itself, creating a vicious cycle. Poor sleep may make pain seem worse, and pain can lead to poor sleep.
The tender points are one of the unique aspects of fibromyalgia. When these points are pressed, people with fibromyalgia feel pain, while people without the condition only feel pressure. There are 18 specific points located at the neck, shoulders, chest, elbows, thighs, hips, and knees.
The pain of fibromyalgia can be intense. Because there is no lab test or X-ray to confirm a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, some patients were once led to believe this pain was “all in their heads.” But the medical community now accepts that the pain of fibromyalgia is real. Research suggests it’s caused by a glitch in the way the body perceives pain.
WHO IS AT RISK?
Women between the ages of 25 and 60 have the highest risk of developing FMS. Doctors aren’t sure why, but women are 10 times more likely to have the condition than men. Because of this, fybromyalgia is sometimes referred to as a women’s disease although men can also have it. Some researchers believe genetics may play a role, but no specific genes have been identified.
An important step in understanding FMS and its effects on you is to identify any triggers that may be the basis of symptom flare-ups. Triggers are any substances, environmental situations, or other things that promote FMS symptoms. Some of the most common triggers are:
v Cold or humid weather
v Too much or too little physical activity
v Poor sleep
While there remains research to be done, foods can also be a trigger for FMS. Additives, preservatives, and food sensitivities have been shown to trigger symptoms.
There are many theories about the causes of fibromyalgia, but research has yet to pinpoint a clear culprit. Some doctors think hormonal or chemical imbalances disrupt the way nerves signal pain. Others suggest a traumatic event or chronic stress may increase a person’s susceptibility. Still others indicate certain neurotransmitters in the brain are to blame. Most experts agree that fibromyalgia probably results from a combination of factors, rather than a single cause.
IMPACT OF DAILY LIFE
Whatever the causes may be, constantly fighting pain and fatigue can make people irritable, anxious, and depressed. You may have trouble staying on task at work, taking care of children, or keeping up with household chores. Exercise or hobbies such as gardening may seem impossible to do. Exhaustion and irritability can also lead to missing out on visits with friends.
Because there are no lab tests to check for fibromyalgia, your doctor may do some testing to rule out other conditions. Be sure to describe your pain in detail, including where it occurs and how often. Also bring up any other symptoms, such as fatigue, sleep problems, or anxiety. Once properly diagnosed, there are effective treatments that help you get back to the activities you enjoy.
Years ago, FMS was thought to be the exclusive domain of rheumatologists. Today, the condition has captured the attention of a wide range of health care providers. Many people receive treatment through their primary care providers. The main thing to ask your doctor is how experienced he or she is in diagnosing and treating FMS. You definitely want someone who knows what they are doing.
There are many treatments available to patients, some medicines and others alternative in nature. You and your doctor can work together to combine treatments into a personalized list that will help relieve your symptoms and promote healing. It will take time but the end result will worth it in the long run.