What Is Fibromyalgia? Everything You Need to Know About This Chronic Condition

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Fibromyalgia is a condition that currently affects approximately 4 million adults in the United States, or 2% of the adult population. More commonly diagnosed in women, fibromyalgia involves chronic pain that is experienced throughout the body’s joints, muscles, tendons, and soft tissues. Those living with fibromyalgia tend to feel overly tired, with aching bodies and sore areas that become more painful with contact.

Fibromyalgia can significantly impact a person’s routine and make daily activities much more challenging. Because of its widespread, chronic symptom presentation, fibromyalgia can also impact other areas of life, like sleep and mood. 

Symptoms Associated With Fibromyalgia 

As opposed to pain that can be localized to a particular joint or injured area, fibromyalgia involves pain that is experienced throughout the entire body. This pain can range in severity and, in many cases, the pain is described as a dull ache or stiffness that intensifies when pressure is applied to a particular area. The three major symptoms associated with cases of fibromyalgia are:

  • Widespread pain of the musculoskeletal system
  • Fatigue and/or difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating

The intensity of pain can vary with time of day and activity level. A person with fibromyalgia may wake up with body aches and stiffness, but feel improvement as the day progresses — or they may experience worsening pain following certain activities, like walking or standing. Other patients may report the same amount of pain, no matter the time of day. Pain can also intensify due to weather changes, stress, or anxiety levels.

Causes & Risk Factors

Pain is experienced when nerve cells are activated, sending signals up through the spinal cord and into the brain. Fibromyalgia is believed to be caused by an abnormal amplification of the brain’s pain response, causing an increase in painful sensations throughout the body even when no identifiable cause exists. This may be in response to repeated physical or psychological stress that the body experiences, leading to chronic heightened sensitivity to pain.

Symptoms can occur either with an easily identifiable onset or more slowly over time. While anyone can be affected by fibromyalgia, there are several risk factors that have been associated with the condition:

  • Genetics: Those with fibromyalgia are likely to have another family member who also suffers from this condition.
  • Physical or Emotional Trauma: A physical injury or an emotionally traumatizing event sometimes triggers the onset of fibromyalgia. Those who live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a higher tendency to experience fibromyalgia as well.
  • Age and Sex Assigned at Birth: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fibromyalgia is twice as common in women (as opposed to men) and most typically occurs in middle aged or older adults.
  • Infection: Certain infections or diseases have been shown to trigger or worsen fibromyalgia symptoms.

Complications Associated With Fibromyalgia

Living with chronic pain impacts the body’s overall ability to function, both physically and mentally. It is not uncommon to experience additional chronic symptoms related to fibromyalgia that include:

  • Memory difficulties or reduced cognitive functioning
  • Numbness and tingling in the hands and/or feet
  • Migraine or tension headaches
  • Indigestion or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Depression or anxiety

Anxiety, depression and stress are complications associated with fibromyalgia. Those suffering from fibromyalgia may feel isolated, especially when friends or family cannot see nor understand the condition. That is, since no physical signs or symptoms can be observed, it may be difficult for a person who is not experiencing fibromyalgia to understand what the affected person is going through.

Testing & Diagnosis

If a person seeks treatment for chronic pain, a healthcare provider will likely assess the origins of their pain, and perform a physical examination that could involve identifying tender points. They may also order various tests, including blood tests, thyroid checks, or sleep studies, in order to rule out other possible causes. In addition, there is a specific fibromyalgia questionnaire that a patient may fill out to identify their symptoms on a severity scale.

For a person to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia, they must have experienced widespread pain — defined by occurring in four of the five following body regions — for at least three consistent months.

  • Left or Right upper: shoulder, arm, jaw
  • Left or Right lower: hip, buttock, leg
  • Axial: neck, back, chest, or abdomen
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Treatment Options

Although fibromyalgia cannot be cured, many treatment options and coping strategies exist to help alleviate pain and other symptoms associated with this medical condition. The main focus of treatment is to improve the patient’s quality of life as much as possible, often by identifying aggravating factors and working to reduce their negative impact on pain levels.

Treatment recommendations may include a combination of lifestyle changes including medication, individualized therapies, or complementary approaches to pain management:

  • Medication: Nerve or muscle pain relievers (over the counter or prescription), muscle relaxants, antidepressants, or sleep aids.
  • Physical Therapy or Occupational Therapy: Implementing exercises or adjustments that make daily movements easier.
  • Exercise: Planning a gentle and consistent movement regimen that minimizes aches and pain.
  • Relaxation and Stress-Relief Techniques: Practicing disciplines like meditation or yoga, or trying an acupuncture or gentle massage session. 
  • Sleep Hygiene: Adjustments to routine or bedding to increase comfort may help.
  • Therapy: Individual counseling can help address underlying stressors.
  • Support Groups: Finding others who are living with chronic pain can decrease feelings of isolation.

If you or someone you know is living with chronic, full-body pain and associated fatigue, speak with a healthcare provider to determine if these symptoms could be related to a fibromyalgia diagnosis.