What is fibromyalgia? 

Fibromyalgia is a very common, chronic disorder characterized by pain and tenderness over the whole body along with trouble sleeping, fatigue, and mood issues. The condition causes a person to have a heightened sensitivity to pain brought on by a triggering traumatic event or over a longer period of time. Researchers have identified that fibromyalgia occurs when the brain and spinal cord do not process pain signals properly, causing the widespread sensation of pain. While there is no known cause or cure for fibromyalgia, there are effective treatments and lifestyle adjustments that help a person with the condition manage their symptoms. 

Fibromyalgia affects women more than men, and the condition often occurs alongside other conditions such as temporomandibular joint (TMJ), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and anxiety and depression. About 2% of the US population has fibromyalgia, making the condition prevalent in the US. The disorder is chronic, but some people experience persistent symptoms while others experience symptoms during flare ups. 





What causes fibromyalgia?

Back to top

The exact cause of fibromyalgia remains unknown, but researchers have continued to try to understand the condition to understand what might contribute to its onset and triggers. Various studies focus on a person’s neurology to see how their brain signals after the sensation of pain. Studying a person’s brain activity also helps to establish the connection between fibromyalgia and related conditions like sleep disturbances and fatigue. 

Other avenues of research attempting to understand the cause of fibromyalgia focus on a person’s genetic makeup and family history to see if fibromyalgia links to a particular genetic factor. Many people who have fibromyalgia also have a family member with the condition, indicating a potential familial association. In addition, environmental or external triggers may traumatize a person’s neurology, causing abnormal brain signaling that could overreact to both painful and nonpainful signals. Following a traumatic and painful event, the body may treat any sensory activity as a threat to the body and signal pain as a defense mechanism.

What are the symptoms of fibromyalgia?

Back to top

Each person may experience the symptoms of fibromyalgia differently, but there are common signs of the condition that generally appear for most people. 

The primary symptoms of fibromyalgia are the following:

  • Chronic and widespread pain throughout the whole body, often a throbbing, burning, or aching feeling
  • Sleep disturbances or trouble sleeping (insomnia) 
  • Overall fatigue in the body and a feeling of tiredness 
  • Muscle pain and tenderness to the touch 
  • Stiffness in the joints and muscles
  • Tingling or numbness in the arms, legs, hands, or feet
  • Heightened sensitivity to noise, smells, temperature, and light  

Fibromyalgia commonly occurs alongside other conditions that start as a response to chronic pain. These associated conditions include the following: 

  • Anxiety
  • Depression 
  • Issues with keeping a clear memory, concentrating, and thinking,  sometimes called “fibro fog” 
  • Migraines or headaches 
  • Jaw and face pain, like TMJ 
  • Digestive problems or IBS 
  • Bladder control problems 

People tend to experience a combination during a flare up of fibromyalgia. Flare ups can last for months at a time and then the symptoms dissipate until the next trigger or flare up. However, others experience more chronic symptoms each day. 

Are there any risk factors or groups for fibromyalgia?

Back to top

There are risk factors that make a person more likely to develop fibromyalgia. Some risk factors relate to a person’s demographics while others relate to your health history and genetic makeup. Anyone can develop fibromyalgia in spite of their risk for the condition

Fibromyalgia tends to be more common in people in the following risk groups: 

Family History: If you have a parent or sibling with fibromyalgia, you are more likely to develop the condition. Researchers have yet to identify what in a person’s genetics explains this risk, but there is the possibility that a genetic marker can explain the cause of the condition. 

Age: Most people develop fibromyalgia starting in middle age, but your chances increase as you age. People of any age, including children, can develop the condition, though. 

Sex: Those assigned female at birth are roughly two times more likely to have fibromyalgia than people assigned male at birth. 

Medical Conditions: People with other chronic or autoimmune conditions have a higher likelihood of fibromyalgia. Conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus are associated with a higher risk. 

Infections: Experiencing an infection can trigger fibromyalgia. 

Stress or Trauma: Stressful or traumatic events can cause fibromyalgia, especially events that result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or serious bodily injuries. 

Obesity: People who are obese have a higher chance of developing fibromyalgia. 

How is fibromyalgia diagnosed?

Back to top

There is no designated test that can diagnose fibromyalgia. Instead, your primary care physician will assess the symptoms you are experiencing and rule out the presence of other conditions to confirm a fibromyalgia diagnosis. Because pain and fatigue are common symptoms of numerous conditions, your doctor will need to thoroughly review your health history and symptoms. In many cases, your doctor will use a process of elimination to narrow in on the cause of your symptoms, which may be fibromyalgia. 

During a physical exam, your doctor will start by asking you about where you are feeling pain, the severity of the pain, and the duration or frequency of the pain. They may also ask about conditions commonly related to fibromyalgia, such as insomnia, lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis. Although laboratory and imaging tests are not always effective in diagnosing fibromyalgia, your doctor may still order a blood test to understand if the cause of any fatigue is due to other issues like anemia or thyroid malfunctions. 

How is fibromyalgia treated?

Back to top

Although fibromyalgia presently has no cure, people can effectively manage their symptoms and make lifestyle adjustments to help live a quality life with chronic pain. Treatments focus on relieving pain and reducing fatigue, sleep disturbances, and mood issues. People with fibromyalgia find success in treating their condition through medication, cognitive behavior therapy, exercise, and other self-management techniques. 

Medications: Together with your doctor, you can use a combination of medications that can relieve pain and address other fibromyalgia symptoms. The process to find the right medications can take some time, so try to be patient through the process to find the most effective treatment for your case of fibromyalgia. Antidepressants, anti-seizure, and analgesics (pain relievers) can each help reduce pain and help you sleep better. 

Cognitive Behavior Therapy: One of the most important treatments for fibromyalgia is cognitive behavioral therapies which supplies a person with strategies to work through the mental challenges of having chronic conditions. Talk therapy can help a person think about their pain through a more positive mindset, and group therapy can help people with fibromyalgia talk with others who understand their lived experience. 

Exercise: Exercise can help strengthen your body, and aerobic exercise can help ease pain and let the body relax. In addition, exercise can help improve depression and anxiety. 

Self-Management: People with fibromyalgia may seek outlets like yoga or meditation as a supplemental treatment for their pain. These practices can help you improve the quality of your sleep and maintain a good outlook for your condition.

Should you see a doctor for fibromyalgia?

Back to top

Fibromyalgia is generally not life threatening, but you should see a doctor when you notice more persistent symptoms that are consistent with fibromyalgia. New symptoms of pain, changes in your mental health, or fatigue should signal you to speak with your healthcare to discuss the possible cause of your new symptoms. 

Fibromyalgia can be cause for concern if a person becomes depressed or suicidal, develops strong headaches or migraines, or experiences memory problems. Seek medical attention for these signs of fibromyalgia and do your best to keep track of the frequency and severity of these symptoms to be able to discuss with your doctor. 

What is the outlook for people living with fibromyalgia?

Back to top

With effective management techniques, a person can live comfortably with fibromyalgia. Although the condition is chronic and you may have to deal with flare ups for a long time or the rest of your life, you can work towards the right combination of treatments that help you return to your normal activities and lifestyle. Being open about your condition can help you communicate your needs in the workplace, at home, or out in public to allow you to navigate more comfortably. People with fibromyalgia are often the best advocates for these accommodations and can lean on the support of their community to work through symptoms. 

Sometimes fibromyalgia can feel overwhelming due to the chronic pain and associated symptoms and conditions. So many people live with fibromyalgia but are often misunderstood because their pain is not always visible or easy to pinpoint. As important as physical treatments for fibromyalgia are the mental strategies that help you cope with your condition and prevent depressive episodes. Because depression and anxiety are common with fibromyalgia, regular mental health screenings are essential to catch those issues early on.