Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition of widespread pain and profound fatigue. The pain tends to be felt as diffuse aching or burning, often described as head to toe. It may be worse at some times than at others. It may also change location, usually becoming more severe in parts of the body that are used most.
The fatigue ranges from feeling tired, to the exhaustion of a flu-like illness. It may come and go and people can suddenly feel drained of all energy – as if someone just “pulled the plug”. Fibromyalgia Syndrome (fibromyalgia for short) is a common illness. In fact, it is as common as rheumatoid arthritis and can even be more painful. People with mild to moderate cases of fibromyalgia are usually able to live a normal life, given the appropriate treatment.
If symptoms are severe, however, people may not be able to hold down a paying job or enjoy much of a social life. The name fibromyalgia is made up from “fibro” for fibrous tissues such as tendons and ligaments; “my” indicating muscles; and “algia” meaning pain.
A Collection of Symptoms Fibromyalgia is known as a syndrome because it is a collection of symptoms rather than a specific disease process that is well understood. Besides pain and fatigue fibromyalgia symptoms often include:
- Non refreshing sleep
- waking up tired and stiff
- headaches ranging from ordinary types to migraine
- irritable bowel
- frequent diarrhoea or constipation, sometimes accompanied by gas in the abdomen or nausea
- cognitive disturbances including lack of concentration and word mix up
- clumsiness and dizziness
- sensitivity to changes in the weather and to noise, bright lights, smoke and other environmental factors
Fibromyalgia is not new, but for most of the last century it was difficult to diagnose. Part of the problem has been that the condition could not be identified in the standard laboratory tests or x-rays. Moreover, many of its signs and symptoms are found in other conditions as well – especially in chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).
Two Canadian doctors developed a way of diagnosing fibromyalgia in the 1970s and in 1990 an international committee published requirements for diagnosis that are now widely accepted.
Once other medical conditions have been ruled out through tests and the patient’s history, diagnosis depends on two main symptoms: widespread pain for more than three months together with pain in at least 11 out of 18 tender point sites when they are pressed.
“Widespread pain” means pain above and below the waist and on both sides of the body. The “tender points”, or spots of extreme tenderness, are rarely noticed by the patient until they are pressed.
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia often develops after some sort of trauma that seems to act as a trigger, such as a fall or car accident, a viral infection, childbirth, an operation or an emotional event. Sometimes the condition begins without any obvious trigger. The actual cause of fibromyalgia has not yet been found. Over the past several years, however, research has produced some insights into this puzzling condition. For instance, it has been known that most people with fibromyalgia are deprived of deep restorative sleep.
Current studies may find out how to improve the quality of sleep. Research has identified a deficiency in Serotonin in the central nervous system and a resulting imbalance of Substance P a spinal fluid that transmits pain signals.
The effect is disordered sensory processing. The brain registers pain when others might experience a slight ache or stiffness. It is hoped that more research will discover the cause and result in more effective treatment.
At the present time treatment for fibromyalgia aims at reducing pain and improving sleep. In other words, some of the symptoms are being treated, rather than the condition itself. Medications most often prescribed for fibromyalgia are tricyclic drugs also used to treat depression although doses for fibromyalgia are much lower than for depression. In some cases these drugs will help both sleep and pain. Over-the-counter medications may help relieve the pain of fibromyalgia but severe pain may require the expertise of a pain clinic. It is best to discuss any form of pain relief with your specialist or GP. It is most important to note that medications work for some people and not others.
Support from family, friends and other people who have fibromyalgia is extremely valuable to those who have fibromyalgia. Professional counselling may help some people to cope with this illness and to take an active part in their own treatment. Learning to manage the condition seems, so far, to be the most successful way of dealing with fibromyalgia. A combination of heat, rest, exercise and reducing stress can enable some people with fibromyalgia to maintain a productive life.
The best way to cope with fibromyalgia is to use a number of techniques that ease the symptoms as much as possible. Relaxation is one technique that works really well for almost everybody with fibromyalgia. It reduces tension in the mind and body right away. The results are calming for all the symptoms, especially for the pain. Relaxation can be learned from books, tapes, videos or special courses. Heat is important. A hot water bottle and hot baths or showers will help reduce pain and banish morning stiffness. Soaking hands and feet in hot water for a few minutes can ease their aching. Exercise is the most common prescription for fibromyalgia.
Although no particular diet has been shown to help fibromyalgia, a healthy, balanced diet is important to provide protein, vitamins and minerals. It is best to avoid or at least cut down on coffee, tea and alcohol. Some sufferers have a tendency to gain weight and this can be distressing in itself. If you follow a healthy diet this should in turn help with your weight control.
People with fibromyalgia can have good days and bad days. On a good day it is important to pace yourself; overdoing it may simply make matters worse. Rest is also important. Listen to your body when it tells you to slow down.
Lots more information can be found at www.fmauk.org The UK's National Charity for Fibromyalgia.