What Is It?
People with fibromyalgia have widespread pain, aches and stiffness in muscles and joints throughout the body along with unusual tiredness. There is no known cause of fibromyalgia. In addition, doctors cannot find a physical reason for the symptoms. Blood tests, X-rays and other tests usually are normal in people with fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia is a controversial illness. Some physicians do not believe that it is a medical illness but may be a reflection of psychological distress or stress. However, there is no proof of a psychological cause either. Until we have a better understanding of the disorder, it is likely to remain controversial.
It may be that fibromyalgia has more than one cause. Some researchers have suggested that it is related to abnormalities in a non-dream part of the sleep cycle or to low levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates sleep and pain perception. Other theories have linked fibromyalgia to low levels of somatomedin C, a chemical related to muscle strength and muscle repair, or to high levels of substance P, a chemical that affects the threshold at which a person experiences pain. Still others have cited trauma, blood-flow abnormalities in the muscles, viral infections or other infections as possible triggers of fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia afflicts an estimated 3.4 percent of women and 0.5 percent of men in the United States, affecting 3 million to 6 million Americans. It most commonly affects women of childbearing age or older. In fact, some estimates suggest that more than 7 percent of women in their 70s have fibromyalgia.
Many people with fibromyalgia also have psychiatric problems such as depression, anxiety or eating disorders, although the relationship between them remains unclear.
Fibromyalgia can cause pain and stiffness in the muscles and joints almost anywhere in the body, including the trunk, neck, shoulders, back and hips. Pain often occurs between the shoulder blades and at the bottom of the neck. Pain may be either a general soreness or a gnawing ache, and stiffness is often worst in the morning. Typically, patients also complain of feeling abnormally tired, especially of waking up tired, although they may not recall having trouble sleeping. People with fibromyalgia also have tender points, which are specific spots on the body that are painful to touch. Some patients also report symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, depression, anxiety and headache. The American College of Rheumatology lists 18 typical tender points in its list of criteria for diagnosing fibromyalgia.
After asking about your symptoms, your doctor will check for swelling, redness and impaired movement in those parts of your body where you are having pain. Your doctor will check for tenderness in the 18 specific tender points designated by the American College of Rheumatology. Your doctor will ask detailed questions about your medical history and examine you to look for other conditions or diseases that could explain your symptoms.
To meet the research criteria for the diagnosis of fibromyalgia, a person must have had widespread pain for at least three months and must have tenderness at 11 or more of the 18 specific tender points. However, physicians often diagnose the illness without meeting these strict criteria, but only after they have been unable to find alternative causes of the pain and fatigue.
To be diagnosed with fibromyalgia, the widespread pain of this disease must last for at least three months, although many patients experience pain for much longer periods. How often fibromyalgia causes disability is uncertain, but most patients are able to adapt to or control symptoms and remain active.
There is no way to prevent fibromyalgia.
To relieve the pain of fibromyalgia, your doctor may prescribe acetaminophen (Tylenol and other brand names); aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil and others) or naproxen (Aleve); a muscle relaxant such as cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril); or an antidepressant such as amitriptyline (Elavil) or fluoxetine (Prozac). Sometimes these medicines are prescribed in combination. For example, amitriptyline and fluoxetine given together may help more than either alone. However, while medications may be somewhat helpful compared with no treatment at all, they are often ineffective. A number of other medicines, including gabapentin (Neurontin), tramadol (Ultram) and tizanidine (Zanaflex), are being investigated for the treatment of fibromyalgia.
Aerobic exercise, such as a low-impact stepping, cycling or swimming several times each week, also is considered an essential part of treatment. Finally, improved sleep quality may improve symptoms, so it may help to avoid caffeine, exercise late in the day and fluids late in the evening. If your symptoms do not improve, your doctor also may suggest that you try one or more of the following therapies: acupuncture, massage therapy, warm compresses, biofeedback, hypnosis, group therapy or stress management. If you have symptoms of depression or anxiety, these may improve with psychotherapy and antidepressant or antianxiety medication.
Every person with fibromyalgia is different, so people may have significantly different treatment plans than the usual measures outlined above.
When To Call A Professional
Call your doctor whenever chronic pain or extreme tiredness interferes with your ability to work, sleep, do normal household chores or enjoy recreational activities.
Studies do not agree about the outlook for people with fibromyalgia. For example, results from some specialized treatment centers show a poor outlook. However, community-based treatment programs show that symptoms go away in 24 percent of patients and symptoms improve in 47 percent.
P.O. Box 7669
Atlanta, GA 30357-0669
Phone: (404) 872-7100
Toll-Free: (800) 283-7800
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
1 AMS Circle
Bethesda, MD 20892-3675
Phone: (301) 495-4484
Toll-Free: (877) 226-4267
Fax: (301) 718-6366
TTY: (301) 565-2966
American College of Rheumatology
1800 Century Place, Suite 250
Atlanta, GA 30345
Phone: (404) 633-3777
Fax: (404) 633-1870