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Fibromyalgia, though common, is a disease that’s not well understood. It involves widespread pain throughout the body, with especially tender spots near certain joints. The pain stops people with fibromyalgia from functioning normally, partly because they feel exhausted most of the time. Fibromyalgia is a chronic (meaning long-lasting) condition that usually requires many years of treatment. It can occur along with other forms of arthritis or all by itself. It can occur after an injury or out of the blue. Most people diagnosed with fibromyalgia are women in their middle years.
This guide will help you understand:
- how doctors diagnose fibromyalgia
- what can be done for the condition
Where does fibromyalgia develop?
Pain in fibromyalgia is present in soft tissues throughout the body. Pain and stiffness concentrate in spots such as the neck, chest, shoulders, elbows, knees, buttocks, and lower back. The tender spots don’t seem to be inflamed. Most tests show nothing out of the ordinary in the anatomy of people with fibromyalgia.
Why does fibromyalgia develop?
The causes of fibromyalgia are unknown, but one thing is for sure: you’re not making it up. Many sufferers have been told that it’s all in your head by family members or other doctors. It is true that people with fibromyalgia are often depressed, and that stress worsens symptoms. But depression and stress don’t seem to be the driving forces behind the disease.
Fibromyalgia often occurs along with other conditions, such as other forms of arthritis, Lyme disease, or thyroid problems. It can also develop after a serious injury. These problems may cause the fibromyalgia to develop.
About 80 percent of all fibromyalgia patients report serious problems sleeping. Because fibromyalgia is so strongly connected to sleep disturbance, in some cases it is possible that the sleep disturbance may be a major contributing factor. In fact, studies have produced fibromyalgia-like symptoms in healthy adults by disrupting their sleep patterns.
New evidence suggests that fibromyalgia is really caused by a dysregulation of the central nervous system. There appears to be some kind of mistake within the nervous system in how it recognizes and transmits pain messages. Somehow, the nervous system seems to think even the simplest touch is a noxious (painful) stimuli. It’s like a ten-alarm fire signal is sent to the brain when a breeze blows by the barn. Nervous system dysregulation of this type is likely caused by biochemical abnormalities, altered brain blood flow, and problems with the pain processing mechanisms. Sufferers have lower pain thresholds and lower levels of serotonin, a brain chemical involved in pain, sleep, and mood.
What does fibromyalgia feel like?
The symptoms of fibromyalgia are long lasting and intense. However, they can vary from day to day. Symptoms include
- pain and stiffness throughout the body, with especially tender points along the back of the neck, top of the shoulders, center of the chest, elbows, knees, low back, and buttocks
- a feeling of exhaustion that sleep often does not help
- sleep problems
- tension headaches
- numbness or tingling in the arms and hands
- a feeling of swelling in the hands, although this is not confirmed in physical exams
- constipation and diarrhea along with abdominal pain (known as irritable bowel syndrome)
- intense PMS pains in women
How do doctors identify fibromyalgia?
Blood tests and X-rays don’t show fibromyalgia in your body. However, your doctor may do these tests to rule out other conditions. Doctors have only two tools to diagnose fibromyalgia. One is your history of symptoms. The other involves putting pressure on eighteen tender point sites. If you feel pain in eleven of these eighteen sites, you are considered to have fibromyalgia. (However, it is still possible that you can have the disease with pain in fewer sites.)
In some patients, doctors may recommend X-rays to look at the bones near painful spots. The X-rays will not show fibromyalgia but are used to make sure there are no other causes of your pain. Other special tests such as electromyograms, which measure the contraction of muscles, may be used to try to determine if the muscles show abnormalities. Most of the time these tests are negative. A sleep history, and possibly a sleep study, could be important to the diagnosis.
Other conditions can occur along with fibromyalgia that can confound the diagnosis. In some cases, other problems such as Lyme disease, Epstein-Barr virus, viral hepatitis, HIV infection, and thyroid problems mimic fibromyalgia making the diagnosis more difficult. Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) may need to be ruled out. CFS is another disease that is difficult to diagnose and has puzzled doctors for many years. CFS and fibromyalgia share many symptoms, especially the severe exhaustion. The major difference is that CFS causes flu-like symptoms, such as low-grade fevers, sore throats, and swollen lymph nodes.
What can be done for the condition?
Usually the first step in the treatment of fibromyalgia is to help patients understand this complex and frustrating disease. Many patients are relieved to learn that the disease is not all in their head. After that, the task is to manage the pain and exhaustion.
Until the exact pathologic pathways are understood, treatment will be more of a management approach. The first-line treatment for fibromyalgia includes medications and a variety of other nonpharmacologic (nondrug) treatment. There isn’t one magic pill patients can take to wipe away the pain, improve sleep, or restore energy. Instead, a wide range of medications are available that can act on the nervous system in a variety of ways. These include tricyclic antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), selective serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SSNRIs), and anticonvulsants. Pain relievers, whether over the counter or prescription, are generally not effective by themselves. Many pain medications are addictive and should be used with caution. Mild pain medications may help in combination with other treatments. Opioid (narcotic) pain relievers, corticosteroids,and nonsteroidal antiinflammatories (NSAIDs) are no longer recommended.
It is uncertain whether fibromyalgia is ever cured. Like many chronic diseases, the symptoms of the disease can be controlled or managed. The successful treatment of fibromyalgia is very much a joint effort between doctor and patient. You must be willing to make lifestyle changes as well as give attention to your psychological health to help control the symptoms. Other treatments or lifestyle changes your doctor may recommend include
- exercise (aerobic and strength training)
- pain medication
- heat for temporary pain relief
- behavioral cognitive therapy
All of the research so far confirms the need to treat this problem with a multidisciplinary approach. A multidisciplinary team of professionals includes doctors, nurses, physical therapists, psychologists, pharmacists, and other practitioners in the healing arts.
Patients must learn as much as they can both about this condition as well as about themselves and what works best for them. That’s easier said than done. Many times the pain and fatigue keep patients from getting the exercise they need. They become deconditioned and weak, which adds to their pain and loss of function.
Reducing and managing symptoms, improving quality of life, and decreasing distress are reasonable goals. Any treatment program will likely last for many years. But patients do get better. In the ideal plan, the patient is really the manager who consults with these other experts to formulate the most effective plan. But the patient must understand that at the present time, there is no cure for fibromyalgia. Studies show that about 25 percent of patients are in remission at the end of two years. Many others have reduced their pain to tolerable levels.
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