Fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder marked by widespread, unexplained pain in the muscles and joints. It’s not a disease. It’s a syndrome, which is a collection of symptoms that occur together. Although many people think of it as an arthritic condition due to the symptoms, it’s not a type of arthritis.
The condition is often associated with tender points, which are termed “trigger points.” These are places on the body where even light pressure causes pain. According to standards published by the American College of Rheumatology in 1990, a person can be diagnosed with fibromyalgia if they have widespread pain and tenderness in at least 11 of the known 18 trigger points. Common trigger points include:
- the back of the head
- tops of shoulders
- upper chest
- outer elbows
A consistent dull ache through the entire body is also common. People with this disorder may also have:
- trouble sleeping
Although the causes are unclear, fibromyalgia flare-ups can be the result of stress, physical trauma, or an apparently unrelated systemic illness like the flu. Symptoms may be a result of the brain and nerves misinterpreting or overreacting to normal pain signals. This could be possibly due to an imbalance in brain chemicals.
According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), fibromyalgia affects around 5 million Americans. Although it occurs in both men and women, women account for between 80 and 90 percent of all cases.
According to the Mayo Clinic, people with a family history of the syndrome are more likely to develop it themselves. Also, those with a rheumatic disease like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis are at a greater risk.
Because its symptoms are somewhat subjective and don’t have a clear known cause, fibromyalgia is often misdiagnosed as another disease. This plays a role in some doctors questioning the syndrome altogether. Although it is more widely accepted in medical circles than in the past, there are some doctors and researchers who don’t consider fibromyalgia a legitimate condition. According to the Mayo Clinic, this can increase the chances that someone with the condition will suffer from depression as they struggle with acceptance for their painful symptoms.
Treatment of fibromyalgia most often focuses on reducing flare-ups to ease symptoms. This is a long-term condition. Symptoms can be treated but the syndrome never goes away. Pain medication and muscle relaxers can ease discomfort. Physical therapy, massage, and regular exercise may also reduce pain and help relieve stress.
Things like behavioral therapy can reduce stress that triggers symptoms and depression that often goes with this disorder. A better diet and sleep habits can also lessen the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Patients can find help through their doctor, but also through support groups across the nation.
Many people are able to ease the symptoms of this syndrome. However, a stressful event or trauma could bring them rushing back at any time.
Written by: Kristeen Cherney and Kimberly Holland
Published on Oct 07, 2014
Medically reviewed on Dec 10, 2016 by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, FACP