If you’ve experienced widespread pain in your muscles and bones, along with tenderness and general fatigue, you may have fibromyalgia. This chronic condition can be challenging to live with, especially if it interferes with your job or social life. But many treatments can reduce symptoms and improve quality of life for those with the illness. Read on to discover all you need to know about fibromyalgia syndrome here.
What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain condition that causes areas of tenderness and discomfort throughout the body. Fibromyalgia pain is accompanied by poor sleep, fatigue, memory problems, and periods of low mood. Approximately two to four percent of people have fibromyalgia, 90 percent of whom are women.
The symptoms of fibromyalgia tend to come and go. When symptoms subside for a period, the condition is said to have gone into remission. When symptoms reappear or suddenly intensify, its referred to as a fibromyalgia flare up.
Fibromyalgia and arthritis are closely linked, and there are higher rates of fibromyalgia among people with rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, just like rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia is classed as a rheumatic condition. A rheumatic condition is one that causes pain in the soft tissues and joints.
The exact cause of fibromyalgia is unknown, but experts believe that several factors play a role in its onset. These include:
There seems to be a genetic component to fibromyalgia. Researchers have found several genes that play a role in the nervous system and its response to pain. These findings could explain why fibromyalgia and other chronic pain conditions run in families.
Many people with fibromyalgia say the illness appeared after they got an infection, such as:
- Herpes Virus 6
Although doctors aren’t sure exactly why an infection triggers chronic pain, it’s likely related to an inflammatory or autoimmune reaction to bacteria or viruses.
Physical injury, such as whiplash, may contribute to fibromyalgia symptoms. Some research reports that between 25 and 50 percent of patients say they had some sort of physical trauma in the weeks or months before their fibromyalgia symptoms appeared.
Psychological trauma may also trigger the condition. Research suggests that distress, especially in childhood, can predict the onset of chronic pain and fibromyalgia. Examples of childhood traumas include abuse and the loss of a parent.
Cause of Fibromyalgia Pain
Although doctors don’t know exactly what triggers fibromyalgia, they have a better understanding of why it causes widespread pain. They believe that repetitive stimulation of the nerves in the body leads to an increase in the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that carry pain signals to the brain.
Pain receptors in the brain may then “remember” the pain and become more sensitive to it, causing an increase in the amount of pain felt by a person with fibromyalgia.
Factors that increase your risk of developing fibromyalgia include:
- Being a woman
- Having a close relative with fibromyalgia or a related condition
- Having a related disorder such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or lupus
Common symptoms and signs of fibromyalgia include:
Most people describe fibromyalgia pain as a constant dull ache. To be classed as “widespread”, the pain must occur above and below the waist and on both sides of the body. Some people also notice numbness or tingling in their extremities.
Living with chronic pain can be exhausting. Not only is the stress of living with chronic pain draining, but moderate to severe fibromyalgia symptoms can disrupt sleep — even if it feels like you slept solidly. People with fibromyalgia often have co-existing sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome.
Brain fog, also known as "fibro fog", impacts your attention span, concentration, and focus. You may also experience headaches, migraines, dizziness, and clumsiness.
Other painful conditions often occur alongside fibromyalgia symptoms. In women, these include unusually painful periods. Both sexes can experience irritable bowel syndrome, painful bladder syndrome, and temporomandibular joint disorders.
To diagnose fibromyalgia, your doctor will first take a full medical and family history. They may then perform:
A Fibromyalgia Test
This test involves pressing eighteen specific points, called fibromyalgia tender points, on a person’s body to check their pain responses. However, doctors operating from newer guidelines don’t often perform this test. Instead, they will usually make a diagnosis of fibromyalgia if the person has widespread pain for three months or more, without any other apparent cause.
Blood tests may be ordered to rule out other medical conditions that have similar symptoms like pain and fatigue. Your doctor may request a complete blood count (CBC), thyroid function test, or other blood test.
Fibromyalgia cannot be cured, so treatment involves managing the symptoms. An effective treatment program aims to provide fibromyalgia pain relief while also addressing sleep issues and cognitive problems.
Most people with the condition use a combination of medications and natural remedies for fibromyalgia. Treatments include:
Supplements and Herbs for Fibromyalgia
Herbal remedies have been used for millennia to treat all manner of ailments, including chronic pain. It can be helpful to work with a naturopath if you wish to try herbal or homeopathic treatments for fibromyalgia.
Some of the herbs and supplements they may recommend include:
- Alpha lipoic acid
- Black cohosh
- Coenzyme Q10
- Milk thistle
- Omega 3 fatty acids
- Rhodiola rosea
However, the results of scientific research on these herbs and supplements for fibromyalgia are mixed.
There isn’t a specific eating plan for those with fibromyalgia, but most people feel better when they switch up their diet. Healthy, balanced meals can provide energy, reduce fatigue, and improve sleep. Basic dietary changes include eating more plants than meat and drinking lots of water.
Some good foods for fibromyalgia sufferers include:
- Whole grains
- Nuts and seeds
- Olive oil
Foods to avoid with fibromyalgia include:
- Processed foods
- Refined grains, such as white bread, white pasta, and white rice
- High-sugar foods
- High-sodium foods
However, everyone has different triggers and what works for one person may not work for another. To find your individual triggers, keep a food diary and note your symptoms each day. Limiting or avoiding problematic foods can reduce your pain and increase your energy levels.
Regular exercise is an important component of any healthy lifestyle. You may initially notice that activity makes your pain worse, but if you ease yourself into a new fibromyalgia exercise program gradually, your symptoms should soon decrease.
Beneficial exercises for people with fibromyalgia include:
Don’t overdo exercise, even on your good days, as it may cause your symptoms to flare up. But don’t skip activities completely on your bad days as they can help with symptoms in the long-term.
Try a yoga strap for an additional boost to your next workout. ( See Product at Amazon)
Yoga combines stretching, meditation, and deep breathing, making it a fantastic activity for people with chronic pain. Some studies have found that yoga—along with tai chi— reduces fibromyalgia symptoms. If you’re looking to get a little more out of your yoga practice, try using a yoga strap.
Try a massage roller ball for a fast and efficient way to limber up and relieve pain.( See Product at Amazon )
Massage therapy can soothe sore muscles, relieve stress and anxiety, and improve range of motion in your joints. This form of touch also releases feel-good hormones to reduce pain and improve your mood. If you can’t go for regular professional massages, consider using a massage roller ball to target painful trigger points.
Heating pads are perfect for long-term pain relief that you can apply while resting. ( See Product at Amazon )
To melt away muscle soreness or stiffness, use a heating pad. Heat increases the flow of blood around the body to alleviate numbness and tingling in the arms, legs, hands, and feet.
Take advantage of a portable tens unit, to relieve chronic pain with the push of a button. ( See Product at Amazon )
TENS, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, uses low-voltage currents to reduce nerve pain and muscle spasms. You can administer this treatment in the comfort of your home with a portable TENS unit. Simply hook up the electrodes to your skin and switch on the device. Always speak to your doctor before using TENS treatment.
Physical Therapy for Fibromyalgia
Many people, especially those newly diagnosed with fibromyalgia, benefit from working with a physical therapist. The therapist can show you how to relieve pain in the common fibromyalgia trigger points and teach you exercises to increase your flexibility and strength. Some physical therapists will perform a targeted fibromyalgia massage on especially painful areas.
Usually, lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough to manage fibromyalgia symptoms. Medications are often required to reduce pain and improve sleep. The best medications for fibromyalgia include pain relievers, antidepressants, and antiseizure medications. You should discuss the use of all drug treatments, even over-the-counter ones, with your doctor.
Living with a chronic condition can take its toll on your mental health as well as your physical well-being. If you need support, work with a counselor who can teach you stress-busting techniques such as meditation and deep breathing exercises. You may also want to look for a fibromyalgia support group in your area.
At present, there is no fibromyalgia cure, but people with the condition can alleviate their symptoms and improve their quality of life through lifestyle changes and medications. Treatments should also focus on preventing some of the complications associated with the condition, including emotional distress and difficulty functioning at work or home.
Each person’s fibromyalgia prognosis depends on the severity of their symptoms, the presence of other conditions, and the treatments they use.
Learning to Live with Fibromyalgia
Living with fibromyalgia can be challenging, but most people see improvements in their symptoms and quality of life when they address their condition. If you experience widespread pain that lasts for three months or more, see your doctor immediately. If they confirm you have fibromyalgia, they can help you design a program comprising some of the most effective fibromyalgia treatment options including TENS, heat therapy, exercise, and medication.