What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that can cause pain across all areas of the body and often also causes extreme tiredness, sleep, memory, and mood problems. Although researchers are yet to discover a definite cause of fibromyalgia, it is suspected that the disease affects the chemicals in the central nervous system, causing non-painful and painful signals to be confused or amplified.
How does Fibromyalgia Start and What are the Risk Factors?
Commonly, the onset of symptoms happens after a distinct event such as surgery, infection, physical trauma, or severe psychological stress. Despite this, not all patients have a certain event that may have triggered fibromyalgia; sometimes symptoms gradually worsen over time. Women are 7 times as likely to suffer from fibromyalgia than men and it is also more common in middle-aged 30-50-year-olds. People diagnosed with fibromyalgia may also suffer from headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, joint disorders, and mental health complaints such as anxiety and depression. A family history of a close relative having fibromyalgia increases the likelihood that you may develop it and other illnesses such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus can mean you are more likely to suffer from fibromyalgia.
What are the Symptoms of Fibromyalgia?
- Widespread pain: typically described as a non-stop, dull ache that lasts for at least 3 months. The pain must be occurring on both sides of the body and above and below your waist to be considered widespread.
- Extreme Tiredness: tiredness that does not necessarily improve after sleeping, even after excessive sleep. Sufferers may find that their sleep is poor quality because of pain and some also report sleep conditions such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome
- Mental Function: patients also suffer from impairment to their focus, attention span, and memory which may be referred to as “fibro-fog”, making it harder to concentrate on demanding tasks at work or school
What other conditions can Fibromyalgia Co-exist With?
Fibromyalgia is commonly paired with comorbidity (another disease) that can exacerbate symptoms and impair quality of life. Irritable bowel syndrome often happens alongside fibromyalgia and can cause digestive problems such as pain after eating and bloating. Chronic fatigue syndrome or ME is another disease that can coexist with fibromyalgia and it also has no certain cause although it presents symptoms of extreme tiredness that do not improve. Fibromyalgia patients may also suffer from migraines and other conditions such as cluster headaches but this can be hard to extract from the headaches reported as a symptom of fibromyalgia itself. An autonomic nervous system disease called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) can also afflict fibromyalgia patients and this causes blood pressure and circulation-related issues as the body cannot adjust to the change from lying, sitting, and standing to regulate blood flow. Anxiety and depression are also common diagnoses that fibromyalgia patients receive as the disease can cause a huge impact on everyday life and prevent patients from continuing with their work, everyday routines, and social activities.
How is Fibromyalgia Diagnosed?
If you suspect you may have fibromyalgia, you should contact a primary care team such as your GP. Although there is no diagnostic test for fibromyalgia itself, it can be confirmed through the absence of any other clear cause of the symptoms. Patients will often have blood tests, MRI scans, and other investigations to decipher whether there is any other condition causing the pain and, if not, they will likely receive a diagnosis of fibromyalgia.
How is fibromyalgia Treated?
Despite not having a cure for fibromyalgia, doctors are able to relieve certain symptoms to improve quality of life. Antidepressants and long-term pain medications can help to alleviate the pain and therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, as well as counseling, can help to reduce anxiety-related symptoms that patients often exhibit. Lifestyle changes such as exercise have been proven to help to reduce pain, as well as relaxation techniques such as mindfulness. It is also vital that those with fibromyalgia seek medical advice for any other diagnosed conditions they also have so that they can receive treatment for any comorbidities.
What other Support is there?
Receiving a diagnosis of fibromyalgia can sometimes be hard to accept and can impact patients’ daily lives enormously. Support groups can be a valuable tool to help patients to manage their symptoms and not feel alone in their struggles. Fibromyalgia Action UK offers information and support online and it also provides local support groups while UK Fibromyalgia is another national support group.
Sophie Farr, Youth Medical Journal 2022
NHS England, “Fibromyalgia”, Accessed from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/fibromyalgia, August 2021
Mayo Clinic, “Fibromyalgia”, Accessed from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/fibromyalgia/symptoms-causes/syc-20354780, August 2021