Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition affecting an estimated 4 million Americans. This condition is commonly misunderstood and difficult to treat.

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What is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is broadly defined as a long-term (chronic) condition, characterized by unexplained pain.

Fibromyalgia has a wide range of symptoms which include:

  • Body aches and muscle pain (myalgia)
  • Mood disorders
  • Gastrointestinal conditions 
  • Fatigue

Symptoms can vary from moderate to severe and can mimic other conditions.

There is still a lot we don’t know about Fibromyalgia and more research needs to be done before we can fully understand this disease.

Is Fibromyalgia Real?

Fibromyalgia is a real condition but for many years it was considered psychological. In 2015 the U.S. formally adopted the ICD-10 code for fibromyalgia. ICD-10 is the statistical classification of diseases according to the World Health Organization. The code recognizes fibromyalgia as a distinct condition.

Before the ICD-10 code, some insurance companies refused to reimburse patients for fibromyalgia complications, insisting that it wasn’t a real disease.

What is the History of Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia has been around for centuries. Considered a mental disorder, classification changed to a rheumatic disorder in the early 1800’s.

A similar condition was first described in 1904, fibrositis. “Fibro” means connective tissues and “itis” means inflammation. Doctors assumed inflammation was the cause of pain. By 1976, researchers had still not found evidence of inflammation. The name changed to fibromyalgia, which roughly means connective tissues and muscle pain. The American College of Rheumatology established diagnostic guidelines in 1990. In 2007, the FDA approved the first prescription drug to treat fibromyalgia.

What Causes Fibromyalgia?

Despite the many   theories, the exact cause of fibromyalgia is unknown. It is likely that a number of factors are involved.

One possible cause is the way an individual’s brain identifies pain signals. The brain’s interpretation of signals may increase sensitivity to stimuli. Some researchers suggest abnormally low levels of the hormones serotonin, noradrenaline (also called norephinepherine), and dopamine might cause fibromyalgia.

Some people might be predisposed to develop this condition because of their genes.

What Factors Increase Your Risk of Developing Fibromyalgia?

The cause of fibromyalgia is still unclear.  Some factors that may increase your risk:

  • Sex. Women are more likely to develop fibromyalgia than men.
  • Physical or emotional trauma, such as car accidents or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been linked to fibromyalgia.
  • Chronic stress has been linked to hormonal changes that could contribute to fibromyalgia.
  • Repetitive injuries, such as frequent knee bending or sports injuries.
  • Past infections or illnesses. Some viral and bacterial infections have possible links to fibromyalgia.

How is Fibromyalgia Diagnosed?

There is no test to diagnose fibromyalgia. Doctors make a diagnosis based on the symptoms you describe.

Doctors will first rule out other possible conditions with blood tests, x-rays or scans. It is  known as a diagnosis of exclusion. As of 2019, the core criteria used to diagnose fibromyalgia include:

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  • Pain in at least 6 out of 9 defined areas
  • Moderate sleep disturbance OR fatigue
  • Symptoms must have been present for more than 3 months

A study by The Ohio State University has recently identified biomarkers of fibromyalgia. This discovery may lead to faster diagnosis in the future.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Fibromyalgia?

Musculoskeletal pain in “pain regions” is the main symptom. It is described as a constant ache that is easily triggered and severity can vary from person to person. Other symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Headaches
  • Depression, anxiety and other mood disorders
  • Poor concentration and mental fog (Often called fibro-fog)
  • Abdominal pain and irritable bowel syndrome
  • Morning stiffness

Symptoms are present in different combinations. In some cases, the severity of symptoms can impact daily life.

How is Fibromyalgia Treated?

There is no cure for fibromyalgia. Combining various therapies can help manage and reduce the impact of severe symptoms.

Medication

Doctors may prescribe a combination of drugs to manage fibromyalgia:

  • For mild pain, using over the counter medication like ibuprofen or aspirin is recommended.
  • Doctors may prescribe narcotics, such as Tramadol, for severe pain management. 
  • Antidepressants are sometimes used to manage symptoms and improve sleep quality.
  • Research suggests anti-seizure medication, like Neurontin, might prevent nerves from sending pain signals. 
  • Sleep aids

Natural treatments

In some cases, patients prefer natural treatment to medication. Using natural remedies in conjunction with traditional medicine might be beneficial. .  These therapies mainly focus on stress reduction and pain relief.

  • Massage therapy 
  • Physical therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Tai chi or yoga
  • Meditation
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy can help manage stressful situations.

Having a support system is important for better well being and joining group therapy may benefit some people.   Group therapy is not as expensive as individual counseling and in some ways it may be better. Patients can learn from each other’s experiences and they may feel less isolated. It also gives them some perspective in relation to their situation.

**It is important to note that alternative remedies have not been proven effective.

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Is Fibromyalgia a Serious Health Condition?

Fibromyalgia isn’t life-threatening. It doesn’t cause any damage to joints or muscles but pain and other symptoms can affect your quality of life.

Is Fibromyalgia the Same as ME?

Many people think fibromyalgia and myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) are the same diseases. Despite some similar symptoms, these diseases are profoundly different. The shared characteristics are pain, fatigue, and mental fog. While fibromyalgia can be severe, ME is much worse, even fatal. ME, caused by a viral infection, results in systemic neural disease. It leads to brain, spinal cord, and organ damage. Many patients with ME end up mentally and physically disabled.

For years fibromyalgia was not considered a real disease. After years of research we are finally starting to understand more about this mysterious disease. The research underway will hopefully find simple methods to test for fibromyalgia and provide improved treatment options.

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