If you’ve heard of fibromyalgia, but don’t know exactly what it is or how it’s caused, consider yourself in good company. Until very recently, fibromyalgia was one of the most hotly debated and misunderstood conditions in the medical community, with some doctors even dismissing it altogether.
Today, fibromyalgia is getting more attention than ever – and long-term sufferers are getting more hope for a definitive cause and cure. Here’s a look at what fibromyalgia is, who’s at risk and how it’s treated.
Fibromyalgia is a musculoskeletal condition that causes extreme pain in the soft tissues of the body, such as muscles, ligaments, and tendons. While fibromyalgia is not life-threatening, it can take a serious toll on those who suffer from it.
Common symptoms of fibromyalgia include:
- Widespread pain (usually dull aching throughout the body)
- Muscle stiffness
- Poor sleep
- Clouded memory
- Headaches and migraines
- Emotional distress (such as depression and anxiety)
Fibromyalgia can present in the form of chronic, near-constant pain, or as intense flare-ups. Areas of the body commonly affected by fibromyalgia include the neck, arms, joints, chest and rib cage, thighs, lower back and shoulders.
To make matters worse, fibromyalgia often occurs alongside other chronic conditions including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), restless leg syndrome and temporomandibular joint disorders (known as TMJ or TMD) – further complicating a doctor’s ability to make a diagnosis.
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
Even though an estimated 5 million Americans suffer from fibromyalgia, doctors are still working to understand its cause. What we do know is that genetics seem to play an important role, with fibromyalgia frequently striking multiple members of a family.
Some doctors believe that certain illnesses and infections can trigger (or aggravate) fibromyalgia. There’s also evidence that major physical or psychological trauma, such as a car accident, can bring on the condition. Still another theory is that fibromyalgia stems from a dysfunction in the brain’s ability to process pain, leaving sufferers highly sensitive to stimuli.
The good news is, increased funding for research is bringing doctors ever-closer to understanding fibromyalgia.
Who Gets Fibromyalgia?
Anyone can get it, but for reasons that aren’t yet known, women represent 80–90% of those affected.
There are other risk factors, too. Fibromyalgia is more likely to develop in people who suffer from autoimmune and rheumatic diseases, like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis (spinal arthritis).
How is Fibromyalgia Diagnosed?
Because there is still so much to learn about fibromyalgia, diagnosis can be difficult. There is currently no diagnostic test, and symptoms can mimic those of lupus, arthritis and thyroid conditions. This means that those suffering from fibromyalgia may see several doctors and undergo a variety of tests before receiving their diagnosis.
Once other causes have been ruled out, a doctor can diagnose fibromyalgia based on a patient’s symptoms, number of pain points in the body and how long the pain has been going on.
How is Fibromyalgia Treated?
Treatment plans for fibromyalgia vary greatly based on each patient’s symptoms. Doctors often begin by helping the patient reduce stress, which can be a major trigger. Since people with fibromyalgia can have difficulty sleeping, doctors may prescribe a sleep aid. During a flare-up, applying heat can help alleviate pain in tender areas.
Other approaches include physical therapy and stretching, pain-relieving medications and even alternative therapies like acupuncture.
It can be hard to find a physician that specializes in fibromyalgia, but Florida Hospital has a dedicated team of doctors here to help you find relief. Call 407-303-DOCS or fill out the form on the side of the page to be connected to a Florida Hospital physician.