The National Fibromyalgia Association reports that fibromyalgia affects nearly 10 million people in the United States alone.
For all that is known about fibromyalgia today, there is still so much more to be learned. If you or someone you love has confirmed or suspected fibromyalgia, this can be frustrating, but the good news is that research is ongoing and evolving to better serve patients and carers.
This article represents the most up-to-date information on the nuts and bolts of fibromyalgia causes, symptoms, prevalence, symptoms, diagnostic approaches, treatment, and prevention.
What Is Fibromyalgia?
So what is fibromyalgia, exactly? Thus far, health researchers have yet to pin down the root origins of this chronic pain condition.
To this end, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) currently defines fibromyalgia (pronounced “fie – bro – my – al – ja”) as a condition that causes widespread generalized body pain.
There also appears to be a component to fibromyalgia that causes increased pain sensitivity and/or changes in how pain is perceived throughout the body. This may be especially the case for redheads. However, this possible link is still not fully understood.
Who Is Affected By Fibromyalgia?
In order of impact, fibromyalgia is known to affect adult women, adult men and children. The National Fibromyalgia Association reports that 75 to 90 percent of sufferers are adult women.
Researchers are not clear about why women represent the majority of cases, but suspect there may be a link to female hormones and hormonal fluctuations.
For adults (female or male), the most common age for diagnosis ranges from 20 to 50. Juvenile fibromyalgia (ages 12 to 18) may impact as many as six percent of children and teens with the most common diagnostic age ranging from 13 to 15.
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
What causes fibromyalgia, precisely? This is perhaps the most puzzling aspect of fibromyalgia.
What is clear is that fibromyalgia affects a tremendous number of people. By the age of 80, approximately eight percent of adults fit the basic diagnostic criteria.
What still isn’t clear is exactly what causes fibromyalgia. Some patients develop the symptoms quite early in life, while for others, symptoms may not appear until relatively late in life.
The Mayo Clinic explains that there may be several contributing factors including genetics, prior experiences of trauma (emotional or physical) and prior experiences with infection.
Some researchers are exploring whether sufferers may also sense pain differently or more intensely than non-sufferers. There isn’t agreement on whether potential differences in sensing pain arise from genetics or repetitive trauma or autoimmune issues or perhaps all of the above.
On a purely neurological level, the chronic nature of fibromyalgia pain may also stem from repeated overstimulation of nerve cells in the brain.
Over time, as these stressed-out nerve cells are repeatedly triggered, they learn to release larger quantities of pain-signaling neurotransmitters in response.
Prior or current experience with autoimmune health conditions such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis is also a suspected risk factor.
What Are the Warning Signs & Symptoms?
By far the most compelling and common warning sign and symptom of fibromyalgia is the presence of chronic, systemic (whole-body) pain. This pain can range from mild to severe and the intensity can vary in different places and throughout the day.
The pain can migrate and transform from outright pain and tenderness to numbness, tingling, twitching, throbbing, stiffness, burning, stabbing or even shooting pain.
Not surprisingly, most fibromyalgia sufferers also experience interrupted sleep. This is exacerbated by the extra burden systemic pain places on the whole body system.
Not only will you be more tired after a day spent wrestling back fibromyalgia pain, but your pain symptoms may prevent you from falling asleep or staying asleep at night.
Abnormal Night-Time Brain Activity
To add to existing challenges with getting restful sleep, research has now confirmed abnormal Stage Four sleep activity in the brains of many fibromyalgia sufferers.
The brain will produce activity bursts during this stage of sleep that then interrupt the regular sleep pattern and actively prevent deep sleep.
Mental and Emotional Challenges.
Anxiety, stress, depression and mood swings are commonly reported by fibromyalgia sufferers.
The all-encompassing fatigue and exhaustion of dealing with chronic systemic body pain can also markedly interfere with daily functioning, career success, family life, social relationships, intimate partnerships and overall quality of life.
Possible Co-Occurring Disorders.
You may not ever experience any or all of these co-occurring issues. Furthermore, they are not required for a definitive diagnosis of fibromyalgia.
However, it is still important to be aware that a statistically significant number of fibromyalgia sufferers report also suffering from the following conditions:
- IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).
- Migraine headaches.
- Restless leg syndrome.
- Raynaud’s syndrome.
- Sensitive skin.
- Skin rashes.
- Touch sensitivity.
- Light sensitivity.
- Sound sensitivity.
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
- Cognitive and memory issues.
- Dry eye.
- Dry mouth.
- Cision abnormalities.
- Coordination problems
- Neurological dysfunction.
- Autoimmune conditions (lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are examples).
As the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center reports, there is also a link between fibromyalgia onset and a prior or current diagnosis of cancer.
How Is Fibromyalgia Diagnosed?
According to the American College of Rheumatology, sufferers must meet three diagnostic criteria in order for fibromyalgia to be confirmed.
The first criteria is that the widespread pain has been present for at least three months or longer.
The second criteria is that the pain is accompanied by other known associated symptoms such as trouble sleeping, mental fogginess (sometimes known as “fibro fog”) and daytime fatigue.
The third criteria is that there is no other underlying condition that could be triggering these symptoms. Here, a number of other medical or blood tests may be required to rule out other conditions before arriving at a definitive diagnosis of fibromyalgia.
Here, there is some good news for sufferers in that diagnosing fibromyalgia no longer requires a very uncomfortable 19-point tender-point test. What is important to establish is that pain is present in all four major body quadrants – i.e., throughout the body system.
How Is Fibromyalgia Treated?
Fibromyalgia treatment is often multi-disciplinary because each person’s experience is unique. Your fibromyalgia symptoms may not look the same as the symptoms reported by a family member or friend.
Drug-based treatment options can include pain-relieving medications, anti-depressant medications, anti-anxiety medications, sleep medications, muscle relaxants and some epilepsy (anti-seizure) drugs.
Non-drug treatment options can include physical and/or occupational therapy, talk therapy and other complementary treatments. These can include each of the following:
- Acupuncture or acupressure.
- Yoga training.
- Massage therapy.
- Guided Visualization.
- Meditation training.
- Aromatherapy and essential oils therapy.
- Dietary and lifestyle changes.
Because there is no known cure for fibromyalgia, treatment always focuses on symptoms management. This also means you should continue to try different remedies if what you have explored thus far hasn’t delivered the desired results.
Can Fibromyalgia Be Prevented?
To date, there is no known method to prevent fibromyalgia. Because there appears to be a genetic link with a possible heritable component, it is important to learn about other family members or relatives who have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia.
Staying healthy, active, fit and well-nourished and managing stress may also be keys to warding off later-life fibromyalgia in particular.