What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a mysterious condition that causes pain and stiffness in the soft tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments) and fatigue, along with many other symptoms The cause is unknown.
Fibromyalgia does not involve inflammation or muscle damage. It cannot be diagnosed with a blood test or x-ray. (Blood tests may be taken to rule out other conditions) Diagnosis is based upon the symptoms.
Many of the symptoms of fibromyalgia are seen in other disorders such as clinical depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, low thyroid function, etc. The most distinctive symptom of fibromyalgia is the presence of tender points, which are specific spots on the body that are painful when pressure is applied.
Widespread musculoskeletal pain (that has been present for at least three months) and fatigue are the main symptoms. There are 18 specific tender points associated with fibromyalgia (areas of the body that are painful when pressed). There must be pain in at least 11 out of 18 of these points to be diagnosed with this disease. (Some doctors believe these guidelines are too rigid - what if the person has only 9 or 10 tender points but many other symptoms) A person with fibromyalgia is usually not aware of these tender points until a physician presses on them.
Sleep disorders are common (affecting 90% of patients). Even if a sufferer gets enough hours of sleep, the time spent in deep sleep - the restorative stage - is often inadequate. Many fibromyalgia sufferers also suffer from depression and/or anxiety. It is not known if this is due to the stress of chronic pain and fatigue, or if there is an actual link between these disorders. There may be headaches, and impaired memory, irritable bowel, along with many other symptoms.
The symptoms and their intensity vary from person to person. Even in the same person, symptoms may fluctuate.
The pain may range from aching to burning or gnawing pain. The intensity and location of the pain may from vary day-to-day. The neck and shoulder area and the lower back are commonly affected. Pain and stiffness are often the worst in the morning. Certain activities, overexertion, stress, damp weather, etc. may trigger increases in pain. However, the pain often fluctuates for no apparent reason.
While there is no cure for fibromyalgia, there are many ways to relieve the symptoms.
When one is in pain or under any stress, muscles contract, which causes more pain. The muscles in the back and neck are especially sensitive to stress. Stress hormones that are released when one is under stress increase the perception of pain and may trigger depression, which is common with fibromyalgia. There are many ways to release stress. See Stress and Back Pain for more information.
Exercise helps reduce stress, increase circulation, relieve pain, and improve sleep.
Stretching exercises loosen tight muscles. Exercising in warm water makes exercises easier to perform, as the warm water relaxes tightened muscles and increases blood flow.
Aerobics are very effective in reducing stress and pain. During aerobic activity, your brain releases chemicals called endorphins - natural painkillers. Low impact exercises such as walking and swimming are ideal. Doing too much too soon can cause post exercise pain in anyone, but overexertion can also cause symptoms of fibromyalgia to flare up.
Low doses of antidepressants are often prescribed. Antidepressants raise levels of certain neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which tend to be low in people with fibromyalgia. Serotonin is strongly linked to mood, sleep, and pain sensitivity. Analgesics such as Tylenol, or NSAIDs such as aspirin or ibuprofen typically do not bring much relief to fibromyalgia sufferers.
Relieve pain and stress and loosen tight muscles with massage therapy.
Some people find acupuncture is effective in relieving the pain of fibromyalgia.
Though a chronic condition with fluctuating symptoms, fibromyalgia does not tend to worsen over time. (Except in the beginning, when the symptoms may develop gradually) Many people actually improve over time as they learn ways to manage their symptoms.