Have you been feeling dull, aching pains throughout your body? Do your muscles feel tender when touched? Do you feel unrested, even if you have had a long night’s sleep? Have you recently experienced physical, or perhaps, emotional trauma before the onset of the symptoms?
If so, you may have fibromyalgia. Read on to learn more about this puzzling illness.
What is fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a neurological condition characterised by chronic widespread pain all over the body, tenderness and sensitivity to touch, and fatigue or muscle weakness. Symptoms occur in cycles of relapses and remission, sometimes called ‘fibro flares’. Recurring episodes of these symptoms can decrease quality of life and lead to significant emotional distress.
What causes fibromyalgia?
As of yet, the exact cause of fibromyalgia remains unknown. However, the following risk factors can increase your likelihood of getting the illness:
- Gender: Fibromyalgia affects women more often than men. Men can be hit by fibromyalgia too, but symptoms are not as severe as those women experience.
- Genetics: You are at higher risk if you already have a family member with fibromyalgia.
- Comorbidities: You are also at higher risk if you already other chronic illnesses like lupus or arthritis.
- Psychological conditions: Risk for fibromyalgia is higher if you have mental disorders like depression, anxiety, or if you have experienced abuse or trauma. Fibromyalgia has been linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Stress: Constant stress raises cortisol levels, leading to hormonal imbalances that could contribute to chemical changes in the brain. This may eventually interfere with the way the brain processes pain, resulting in fibromyalgia.
What happens to your body if you have fibromyalgia?
In fibromyalgia, the brain and spinal cord misinterpret pain signals from your nerves. Current theories suggest that either the brain lowers the pain threshold, or the brain may be over-sensitive to pain signals from nerves. This is called abnormal pain perception processing. The patient is more sensitive to pain than those who do not have fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia causes pain in tender points, certain parts of the body where even the slightest application of pressure can elicit significant pain. Patients with fibromyalgia may not be able to bear being touched, and even the pressure of lying down causes massive discomfort. There are nine pairs or 18 tender points in the body. Fibromyalgia was previously diagnosed when a patient reported pain in at least 11 out of 18 tender points.
How do you diagnose fibromyalgia?
There are no specific tests to diagnose fibromyalgia. Doctors use a combination of medical history and physical assessment, as well as blood tests and labs to form a picture of the symptoms and conclude a diagnosis of fibromyalgia.
Complaining of pain in 11 out of 18 tender points is not widely used as a definitive diagnostic test anymore, though some doctors still use the method to rule out other conditions. Current diagnosis parameters for fibromyalgia include a consistent, dull ache that persists for at least three months, and is not relieved by rest.
What are the symptoms of fibromyalgia?
You may have fibromyalgia if you’re experiencing the following symptoms:
- Widespread pain, or pain that occurs throughout the body
- Sensitivity to touch
- Feelings of fatigue or tiredness
- Depression and anxiety from having a decreased quality of life. Some doctors and health care practitioners deny the existence of the disease; receiving inadequate support and being made to feel the condition is invalid may contribute to mental health issues.
- Insomnia and sleep problems due to discomfort and pain while lying down
- Headaches or migraines due to pain and lack of sleep
- Cognitive problems
- Memory problems
- Abdominal pain and nausea
What’s the prognosis of a life with fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is not a life-threatening disorder, and you are unlikely to die from having it. However, recurring ‘fibro flares’ may result in decreased quality of life. Pain and discomfort may render you unable to do everyday tasks or participate in activities you used to enjoy.
The chronic pain and loss of interest in activities may bring on mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Having fibromyalgia makes someone more than 3 times more likely to develop major depression, and suicide rates are higher among fibromyalgia patients than people without fibromyalgia.
However, proper management of symptoms—such as stress reduction, regular exercise, and getting quality sleep—can dramatically reduce the severity of fibromyalgia episodes, allowing the patient to lead a normal, functioning life.
How do you treat fibromyalgia?
There is currently no specific cure for fibromyalgia. Treatment is symptomatic: relieve pain with medication, prevent or minimise symptoms with self-management strategies, and seek cognitive behavioral therapy for depression and anxiety.
How do you live life with fibromyalgia?
Your future does not have to be dictated by your illness. If you have fibromyalgia, here are some things you can do to put control back in your hands.
- Exercise. When possible, engage in aerobic exercise (aim for at least 150 minutes a week) to reduce the risk of developing other chronic diseases on top of fibromyalgia. Attend physical activity programs aimed at reducing pain and disability. Regular exercise also improves mood and reduces stress.
- Stress management. Speaking of stress, consider a change in lifestyle, job, or living arrangements to reduce stress and thus minimize getting ‘fibro flares’. Get good quality sleep and adequate rest.
- Self-management classes. Take steps to be more educated about your condition. The more you know about fibromyalgia, the more empowered you are to make decisions about your health. You’ll be better equipped to handle your symptoms so you can do the things important to you and raise quality of life. ■