Widespread muscle and joint pain and fatigue may be caused by a problem with how you process pain signals. But the answer to the question “What is fibromyalgia?” is still mysterious.
If you tell someone you have fibromyalgia, you may hear “What is fibromyalgia, really?” If they sound skeptical, it’s easy to be hurt. We don’t know exactly what causes fibromyalgia, but that doesn’t mean you’re making it up for attention.
What is fibromyalgia?
The key sign: aching all over for more than three months. There's no blood test that will tell you whether you have this condition, but it’s thought to affect about four to five million Americans. Your doctors will need to rule out an underactive thyroid, various kinds of arthritis, and lupus. It often takes years before your troubles will be given a name.
The condition may be triggered by a big stress like a car accident or serious infection. Often people with fibromyalgia have another source of chronic pain, like arthritis and a history of physical or emotional abuse or post-traumatic stress disorder. Fibromyalgia runs in families, and some scientists suspect a genetic vulnerability.
Fibromyalgia symptoms in women
You have tender spots around your body. Your muscles may burn, twitch, or simply feel tight; your hands and feet may tingle; you also may wake up unrested and feel fatigue through the day.
Trouble concentrating (sometimes called “fibro fog”) and anxiety or depression sometimes may occur. Most fibromyalgia patients have trouble staying asleep through the night.
You might have digestive issues — constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, queasiness.
Other symptoms include headaches; a dry mouth, nose or eyes; sensitivity to cold, heat and light; and frequent urination.
Fibromyalgia in men
Nine women get a fibromyalgia diagnosis for every man. In part, that’s because men are less likely to seek help. Chronic widespread pain is only about 1.5 times greater in women than in men, says Daniel Clauw, MD, the director of the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center at the University of Michigan.
How to treat fibromyalgia
The basics of good health — enough sleep and exercise and healthful diet — all apply and may be especially important, though getting sleep and exercise is harder.
Exercise is recommended, but isn’t a cure-all. According to a 2017 Cochrane Library review of the evidence, there’s good evidence that an aerobic exercise program will make you feel better overall, but there’s neither a strong case it relieves specific symptoms like fatigue and stiffness nor a strong case it helps long-term.
Beyond over-the-counter pain remedies, you can speak to your doctor about the three drugs approved for fibromyalgia: Cymbalta, Lyrica, and Savella.
There’s early evidence for magnesium in the form of a spray. Acupuncture with electrical stimulation — not just needles — also can help. It’s good to move if you can, and yoga, tai chi or qui gong classes are gentle. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, if you are short of vitamin D, taking supplements may reduce pain. The agency also notes early promising research on transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) for fibromyalgia symptoms, though TMS may trigger headaches.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
- American College of Rheumatology
- Arthritis Foundation
- National Fibromyalgia Association
- National Fibromyalgia Partnership, Inc.
- Fibromyalgia Network
March 20, 2018
Janet O’Dell, RN