According to the CDC, fibromyalgia affects about 4 million US adults (2% of the population). While diagnosis is common in middle-aged women, fibromyalgia can occur in anyone (even children). People usually describe the pain as an aching, burning, or throbbing sensation. While there is no known cause or cure, treatment options are available to help manage symptoms. In this article, we will discuss fibromyalgia more and dispel some stigma and misunderstandings still surrounding this condition today.
What Is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that causes widespread muscle and joint pain throughout the body and is often accompanied by fatigue, memory, mood, and sleep issues. While still not fully understood, people with this condition tend to have a heightened sensitivity to pain (also known as abnormal pain perception processing).
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Fibromyalgia?
The defining symptom of fibromyalgia is widespread muscle and joint pain that lasts for a least three months, on both sides of your body and above and below your waist. Other symptoms will vary between individuals. However, some common symbols may include:
- Anxiety or depression
- GI problems (such as bloating, diarrhea, or constipation)
- Face or jaw pain
- Muscle and joint stiffness
- Headaches or migraines
- Cognitive issues such as difficulty concentrating, thinking clearly, and memory (often called “fiber fog”)
- Heightened sensitivity to light, noise, odors, and temperature
- Numb or tingling sensation in the hands or feet
How Is Fibromyalgia Diagnosed?
If you suspect that you may have fibromyalgia, we highly suggest you see your doctor and discuss any issues, concerns, or questions. As of right now, there is no specific lab or imagining test done to diagnose fibromyalgia. In the past, doctors would check 18 tender points to help determine a diagnosis. However, the new guidelines from the American College of Rheumatology do not require this exam anymore. Instead, your doctor may:
- Take note of your symptoms
- Perform a physical exam(to examine joints)
- Review your medical history
- Send you to do other tests (such as blood work or x-rays) to rule out any other possible health conditions
The main factor usually required for fibromyalgia is widespread pain throughout your body that has lasted for more than three months. You must also have pain in at least five of these four regions:
- Left upper region (shoulder, arm, or jaw)
- Right upper region (shoulder, arm, or jaw)
- Left lower region (hip, buttock, or leg)
- Right lower region (hip, buttock, or leg)
- Axial region (neck, back, chest, or abdomen)
Can You Cure Fibromyalgia?
As of right now, there is no cure for fibromyalgia. However, there are various medications and treatment options doctors can prescribe/recommend to help manage symptoms. Specific lifestyle changes/choices can also help in managing symptoms.
How Is Fibromyalgia Treated?
Because there is no cure for fibromyalgia, treatments focus more on helping relieve symptoms. Your doctor may recommend a treatment plan that involves a combination of:
Certain medications may help improve issues with sleep and help with pain relief. Remember that finding relief will be a slow process as you slowly figure out what combinations and dosages best suit your needs. Some medication options may include:
- Anti-seizure medications
- Pain-relieving medications
Various therapies can help alleviate how your condition impacts your life (mentally and physically). Your doctor may recommend:
- Physical therapy (to help improve strength, flexibility, and stamina)
- Occupational therapy (helps in making adjustments when performing specific tasks so as the alleviate stress from your body)
- Counseling (therapy such as CBT can help redirect the way you act or think)
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
The direct cause of fibromyalgia is still unknown. However, many studies have shown that people with fibromyalgia tend to have a heightened sensitivity to pain and feel pain when others may not. Researchers theorize that pain sensitivity may have to do with repeated nerve stimulation that often leads to changes in the brain and spinal cord. As a result, this can lead to abnormal levels of specific chemicals in the brain that signal pain. Pain receptors in our brain may also develop a memory of pain and become more sensitized (leading to a heightened sensitivity to pain). Other factors to consider may include:
- Life stressors (i.e., car accidents, PTSD, abuse, being born prematurely)
- Anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders
- Already having a disease/condition that causes pain (I.e., rheumatoid arthritis)
- Lack of exercise
- Poor sleep
Who Is at Risk of Fibromyalgia?
Anyone can get fibromyalgia. However, evidence shows that women are more likely to get fibromyalgia than men. Children can also get it, but symptoms tend to appear during middle age. Studies also show that people with conditions such as depression, anxiety, chronic back pain, IBS, lupus, osteoarthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, or rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to have fibromyalgia. People with a family history of this condition are also at an increased risk of having it develop at some point in their life.
How Can I Manage Living with Fibromyalgia?
You can also work with your doctor and other medical professionals to help you find various self-management strategies to help alleviate your fibromyalgia symptoms. Of course, everyone is affected differently, so it is always best to test things out and see which steps work best for you. Some things to consider may include:
- Educating yourself:
There are many credible sources/websites you can look into to learn more about fibromyalgia. Such websites include:
You may also want to look at self-management education classes. These classes can help build confidence in people as they help them understand how the condition affects their lives, teaches them steps in how they can improve their quality of life, and teaches them ways in which they can control their symptoms.
- Using a health app:
Having something that can help keep track of your symptoms, triggers, medications, etc., can be beneficial in your health journey. Consider using our Febo app today! With our app, you have access to various condition management tools (i.e., medicine reminder, activity log, food diary, water log, pee & poo diary, sleep diary, symptom diary). You also have the opportunity to connect with other users who have the same health condition.
- Seeking support:
Don’t hesitate to look towards friends and family for support (whether it be for mental or physical reasons). You may also consider joining an online or in-person support group for people with chronic pain or fibromyalgia. While it is helpful to have the support of loved ones, it helps to connect with others who understand what you are going through. Because anxiety and depression are also common symptoms for those with fibromyalgia, you may also want to look into visiting a mental health professional.
We understand that exercising while dealing with widespread muscle and joint pain can be difficult. However, many studies show that regular exercise can help reduce fibromyalgia pain and symptoms. You could work with a medical professional to help build an exercise routine that best suits your needs. Physical therapists or exercise physiologists can also prescribe a specific exercise program. Remember to start slow and listen to your body when deciding whether to increase or decrease activity frequency/intensity. Your area may also offer physical activity programs that provide classes best suited for those with disabilities or joint issues.
- Making sure you get enough sleep:
Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms people with fibromyalgia face. Try getting enough sleep so that your mind and body have enough time to recuperate after a long day. You may want to consider:
- Building and following a regular sleep routine
- Setting a specific time to go to bed and wake-up
- Creating a dark, calm, and quiet sleep environment
- Avoid watching TV or looking at your laptop or phone while lying in bed
- Avoid working or exercising close to bedtime
- Trying some relaxing activities before going to bed (i.e., listening to calming music, meditating, following a skincare routine)
- Avoid daytime napping
- Limiting caffeine intake (especially during the evening time)
- Setting time aside to relax:
Make sure you pace yourself so as not to use up all your energy for the day. Exerting/stressing yourself too much may lead to a worsening of symptoms. Find activities that you find relaxing, and try sprinkling those into your routine throughout the day.
Does My Diet Affect My Fibromyalgia?
There is no specific diet that can cure fibromyalgia. However, you may find that making some changes to your diet can help in managing your symptoms. Of course, this does not mean that these dietary changes will work for everyone. We highly recommend you talk with your doctor and/or a dietician before making any changes. Some changes to consider include:
- Eating a well-balanced diet: Your diet should include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, low-fat dairy, and lean proteins (such as chicken or fish). Try to limit your intake of saturated fats and processed or fried food.
- Avoiding foods that trigger symptoms:You may notice that certain fibromyalgia symptoms worsen after eating a specific food. If that is the case, consider keeping a food diary to help you track foods that trigger or improve symptoms.
- Boosting your Omega-3 intake: Foods high in omega-3 (such as fatty fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, etc.) can help decrease inflammation and relieve pain for some people.
- Consider cutting or limiting gluten: Some people experience symptoms similar to those with gluten-related disorders. If you suspect that gluten triggers your symptoms, work closely with a doctor or dietician to design a nutrition plan to ensure you meet your daily nutrients.
- Limiting sugar intake:Diets high in carbs and sugars can worsen inflammation.
- Incorporating herbs and spices: Many herbs and species are rich in antioxidants that can help reduce inflammation.
What Are the Common Fibromyalgia Tender Points?
In the past, the American College of Rheumatology included counting tender points into their 1990 Fibromyalgia Diagnostic Criteria. It means that people had to experience pain in 11 of the 18 tender points for at least three months. However, since 2010, the criteria have been updated and no longer require tender points. The change in requirements is due to emerging research showing that fibromyalgia pain can fluctuate- and that tender points are generally subjective. While tender points are no longer required to receive a diagnostic, knowing about them can still be helpful. The tender point locations are:
- Front lower sides of the neck
- Back of the neck
- Upper chest
- Inner elbows
- Back of the head
- Upper back (around shoulder blades)
- Upper outer buttock
What Are Some Common Myths Surrounding Fibromyalgia?
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma and misunderstandings surrounding this condition. We will further discuss some common myths that many still believe today.
- Fibromyalgia is not real.
Fibromyalgia is very much an existing and chronic condition. One issue is that chronic conditions are often misunderstood. This misunderstanding often leads to the misconception that they are not serious or real. However, just because we don’t know the exact cause does not mean we should discredit the pain and symptoms many people with fibromyalgia feel.
- Tender points are required to receive a diagnosis.
Tender points are no longer required criteria to receive a fibromyalgia diagnosis. People can still experience pain in these areas. However, tender points are highly subjective among physicians. Research also shows that fibromyalgia pain can fluctuate throughout the body. One day they can feel pain in nearly all tender point locations, and the next, they may only feel pain in a handful of areas. Thus, relying on tender points can lead to many patients being under-diagnosed.
- Only middle-aged women are at risk of getting fibromyalgia.
Women tend to make up the majority of cases in this condition. However, fibromyalgia can occur in women, men, and children of all ages. One must also remember that other factors can influence why middle-aged women tend to receive a diagnosis.
- Fibromyalgia has a direct cause.
As of now, researchers and medical professionals still do not know the direct cause of this condition. It is theorized that genetics, illnesses, physical trauma, and psychological stress play a role in the development of fibromyalgia. However, there needs to be more research to determine the direct cause.
- Fibromyalgia and arthritis are the same.
Fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis tend to share many overlapping symptoms. However, they are different conditions. Arthritis is an autoimmune disease that involves inflammation around the joints. Meanwhile, fibromyalgia is a chronic condition affecting the muscles and soft tissue. Evidence even shows that the pain a fibromyalgia pains feels comes from the brain and central nervous system.
- Nothing can help my fibromyalgia pain.
While there is no cure for fibromyalgia, it is possible to seek pain relief from various treatment options. Certain medications, therapies, and lifestyle changes/actions can help improve symptoms.