What Kind of Disease is Fibromyalgia?
Because fibromyalgia was once believed to be an arthritis-related condition, and most arthritis is autoimmune, the assumption was that fibromyalgia fit into this category. However, thus far, researchers have not uncovered any evidence of autoimmunity in fibromyalgia. In autoimmune disorders, the immune system attacks a particular tissue or structure in the body. It typically causes damage and inflammation at that site, and these are traits not observed in fibromyalgia. However, right now we don’t have enough solid evidence as to the central cause of the illness to rule out many possibilities. In fibromyalgia, irregularities in hormones, neurotransmitters (messengers in the brain) and enzymes (substances necessary for chemical reactions) are widely believed to be responsible for symptoms. Some researchers, however, suspect the immune system may be somewhat irregular in people with fibromyalgia.
Autoimmune Disease and Fibromyalgia Risk
Thus far, fibromyalgia research has not uncovered evidence of autoimmunity. Inflammatory markers are not consistently elevated; no antibodies have been discovered; and the damage typical of autoimmune activity has not been observed. However, a significant overlap between fibromyalgia and certain autoimmune conditions indicates that autoimmunity may be a risk factor for developing fibromyalgia. These frequently overlapping conditions include:
Why the Confusion?
Part of the confusion about fibromyalgia and autoimmunity comes from a misunderstanding of what “autoimmunity” means. However, it also could be due to several similarities between fibromyalgia and conditions such as those listed above.
- Similar Symptoms: These conditions all involve pain, fatigue and many other common symptoms.
- Difficult Diagnoses: Like fibromyalgia, autoimmune conditions can be tricky to diagnose and the process can take a long time.
- Poor Understanding: Because the public, and even many members of the medical community, don’t understand fibromyalgia, it’s often inaccurately lumped in with autoimmune diseases that, on the surface, appear to be similar.
It can be especially difficult to diagnose fibromyalgia when it occurs alongside an autoimmune disease with similar symptoms. However, it’s important for each condition to be identified and treated separately, as they require different treatments.
Is Fibromyalgia a Real Disease?
Some people say fibromyalgia is a real disease, and some people say it doesn’t exist. Is fibromyalgia a real disease? This is a common question, but it actually covers two very different issues:
- Is fibromyalgia a disease?
- Is fibromyalgia real?
Disease vs. Syndrome
Technically, fibromyalgia is a syndrome, not a disease. Some people seem to think that somehow makes it less valid or less serious. However, the difference is really one of understanding, not validity or severity. The definition of syndrome is: A collection of signs and symptoms known to frequently appear together but without a known cause. Defining disease is a little more complicated. Many medical dictionaries define it as: A disorder in a system or organ that affects the body’s function. You can see that “syndrome” and “disease” are classifications based on what doctors understand, and not on the legitimacy of the illness. With research and better understanding, syndromes can be re-classified as diseases.
“Realness” of Pain
It’s hard to look at someone and see pain. Even if it’s obvious that something is terribly wrong, you can’t judge the severity of the pain. Making it even more difficult for “outsiders,” people who live with chronic pain generally become very skilled at masking it. That invisibility has been a real obstacle to overcoming skepticism about fibromyalgia. When X-rays and other diagnostic tools fail to show anything wrong at the specific site of chronic pain, and when pain roams around the body and comes and goes, it’s hard to understand. Technology is now helping us, however. Several types of sophisticated brain scans have demonstrated abnormalities in brain activity when it comes to pain processing. Analysis of cerebrospinal fluid shows high levels of something called substance P, which is known to be involved in how we perceive pain. With this discovery and the current research being done on fibromyalgia, the scientific community hopes to grasp a greater understanding of this very real, and painful, syndrome affecting so many people.