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The question, “What is fibromyalgia?” is a complicated one that doctors and patients have been trying for decades to answer.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that causes intense pain all over the body, as well as a host of other symptoms. It affects more than 6 million people in the United States.
Doctors classify fibromyalgia as a syndrome, which means it has a group of signs, symptoms and characteristics that occur together.
To make a diagnosis, doctors usually rely on signs and symptoms alone. Complicating the matter, symptoms vary widely from person to person, as do their intensity.
People with fibromyalgia frequently hurt all over and feel exhausted all the time. Those symptoms often force you to seriously limit your physical activity. It’s also common to have problems concentrating and remembering things. A lot of people with fibromyalgia have symptoms so severe that they have to quit or modify their jobs.
Because fibromyalgia is frequently misunderstood, family, friends, co-workers and even medical providers may not believe the person is actually sick. A proper diagnosis often takes months.
Adding to these considerable frustrations, it can be difficult or impossible to qualify for Social Security Disability benefits. That’s in large part because it used to be commonplace for doctors to mislabel any chronic pain of unknown origin as fibromyalgia, and the diagnosis is still misused somewhat today.
Keep in mind that the signs and symptoms vary widely from one person to another. Some people have only a few, while others have many. The intensity of symptoms is different in everyone as well, ranging from mildly annoying to highly debilitating.
Common symptoms include:
- Widespread pain
- Morning stiffness
- Unrefreshing sleep
- Cognitive or memory impairment (“fibro fog”)
- Abdominal complaints, including irritable bowel syndrome
Frequently, people with undiagnosed fibromyalgia don’t realize that a host of secondary symptoms are related to the pain, fatigue and other primary symptoms. Keeping a detailed list of symptoms can help your doctor make a diagnosis.
Additional fibromyalgia symptoms include:
- Painful menstrual cramps
- Vision problems
- Nausea and dizziness
- Weight gain
- Chronic headaches
- Skin, hair and nail problems
- Muscle twitches and feelings of weakness
These lists include the most common symptoms. For a complete symptoms list, see the Monster List of Fibromyalgia Symptoms.
While a lot of fibromyalgia treatments are available, you’ll likely need to experiment with different options before you find what works best for you.
Fibromyalgia treatment options include:
- Prescription drugs
- Complementary/alternative treatments, including massage and physical therapy, chiropractic, and acupuncture
- Vitamins and supplements
- Moderate exercise, but only if done correctly
- Lifestyle changes, including diet, stress management, and pacing
Every case of fibromyalgia is different, and no treatment works for everyone.
You’ll probably need to work closely with your doctor to custom tailor a treatment regimen that helps you become more functional. Many people benefit from a multidisciplinary approach, which involves several healthcare providers.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition. While some people do experience long remissions, no one who’s had fibromyalgia can truly say they don’t have it any more.
As for the progression of the illness, it’s hard to say whether your symptoms will get better or worse with time. Because fibromyalgia isn’t degenerative, its course isn’t clearly established like it is for many diseases.
Some experts say about a third of us will get worse, a third will improve significantly, and the remaining third will stay about the same. Some studies have linked early diagnosis and treatment to better long-term outcomes, but other than this it’s unclear what role treatment plays in the progression, or lack thereof, of fibromyalgia.
As if all this weren’t enough, several other conditions frequently go along with fibromyalgia. Researchers aren’t sure whether one condition leads to another or whether they have related underlying causes. Becoming familiar with the symptoms of these disorders can help you determine whether you have more than one.
Overlapping conditions include:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ)
- Multiple chemical sensitivity
- Myofascial pain syndrome
- Restless legs syndrome
- Costochondritis (chest pain)
Doctors coined the term fibromyalgia (fibro = fibrous tissue, my = meaning muscle, algia = pain) in 1976, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the American College of Rheumatology developed diagnostic criteria. While muscle pain is the primary symptom, research found that nothing is wrong with the muscles themselves.
For a time, researchers thought it could be an autoimmune disease, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. Now it’s widely believed in the medical community that a malfunction of the central nervous system (called central sensitization) causes fibromyalgia, leading to new research into treatments and new hope that fibromyalgia will be not only more treatable, but perhaps even curable.
To date, three drugs — Lyrica (pregabalin), Cymbalta (duloxetine), and Savella (milnacipran) — are FDA approved for treating fibromyalgia, but many other drugs are prescribed off label.
- The History of Fibromyalgia
Common Fibromyalgia Terms
Click on the terms below to learn more about them:
- Central Sensitization
- Substance P
- Tender points
For more terms related to fibromyalgia, see the Fibromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Glossary.
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