Fibromyalgia is a syndrome that affects millions of people worldwide, causing chronic pain, fatigue, insomnia, and other symptoms. It is not a disease with a known cause, but rather a complex condition that involves the brain and nervous system. In this article, we will explore what fibromyalgia is, what are its causes and symptoms, and how it can be diagnosed and treated.
What is fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a syndrome that means “pain in the muscles and connective tissues”. It is characterized by widespread pain throughout the body, especially in the neck, shoulders, back, arms, and legs. The pain can vary in intensity and location, and can be triggered or worsened by stress, weather changes, physical activity, or lack of sleep.
Fibromyalgia also causes other symptoms, such as:
- Fatigue: People with fibromyalgia often feel tired and have low energy levels, even after sleeping for long periods of time. They may also have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or suffer from sleep disorders such as restless legs syndrome or sleep apnea.
- Cognitive difficulties: People with fibromyalgia may experience problems with memory, concentration, attention, and mental tasks. This is sometimes called “fibro fog” or “brain fog”.
- Mood disorders: People with fibromyalgia may experience depression, anxiety, irritability, or mood swings. They may also have low self-esteem or feel hopeless about their condition.
- Other symptoms: People with fibromyalgia may also have headaches, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, interstitial cystitis, temporomandibular joint disorders, postural tachycardia syndrome, or other conditions that affect different parts of the body.
What causes fibromyalgia?
The exact cause of fibromyalgia is unknown, but researchers believe that it involves a disruption of the pain mechanisms in the brain and spinal cord. This means that the brain and nervous system become more sensitive to pain signals from the body, and amplify them to cause more pain and discomfort. This may be due to genetic factors, infections, trauma, stress, or hormonal changes.
Some possible factors that may contribute to fibromyalgia are:
- Genetics: Fibromyalgia tends to run in families, which suggests that there may be certain genes that make people more prone to developing the syndrome.
- Infections: Some viral or bacterial infections may trigger or aggravate fibromyalgia symptoms. For example, some studies have linked fibromyalgia to infections caused by Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis C virus (HCV), Lyme disease bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi), or mycoplasma bacteria.
- Trauma: Physical or emotional trauma may trigger or worsen fibromyalgia symptoms. For example, some people may develop fibromyalgia after a car accident, a surgery, a sexual assault, or a significant psychological stress.
- Stress: Chronic stress may affect the levels of certain hormones and chemicals in the brain and body that regulate pain perception and mood. Stress may also impair the immune system and increase inflammation in the body.
- Hormonal changes: Hormonal fluctuations may affect the pain sensitivity and mood of people with fibromyalgia. For example, some women may experience more severe symptoms before or during their menstrual periods, during pregnancy, or after menopause.
How is fibromyalgia diagnosed?
Fibromyalgia can be difficult to diagnose because there is no specific test that can confirm it. The diagnosis is usually based on the patient’s medical history, physical examination, and symptom criteria. The most common criteria used to diagnose fibromyalgia are:
- Widespread pain: The patient must have pain on both sides of the body and above and below the waist for at least three months.
- Tender points: The patient must have at least 11 out of 18 tender points on the body that are painful when pressed. These tender points are located in areas such as the neck, shoulders, chest, elbows, knees, hips, and lower back.
- Other symptoms: The patient must have at least one other symptom such as fatigue, cognitive difficulties, or sleep problems.
The doctor may also order some blood tests or imaging tests to rule out other conditions that may cause similar symptoms. For example,
- Blood tests: The doctor may check for signs of inflammation (such as erythrocyte sedimentation rate or C-reactive protein), infection (such as antibodies to EBV or HCV), thyroid problems (such as thyroid-stimulating hormone or TSH), anemia (such as hemoglobin or hematocrit), vitamin deficiencies (such as vitamin B12 or folate), or autoimmune diseases (such as rheumatoid factor or antinuclear antibodies).
- Imaging tests: The doctor may perform an X-ray, a computed tomography (CT) scan, or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to look for abnormalities in the bones, joints, muscles, or nerves that may cause pain or other symptoms.
How is fibromyalgia treated?
There is no cure for fibromyalgia, but there are various treatments that can help manage the symptoms and improve the quality of life of the patients. The treatment plan may include:
- Medications: The doctor may prescribe some medications to help reduce pain, improve sleep, and regulate mood. These may include painkillers (such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or tramadol), antidepressants (such as duloxetine, milnacipran, or amitriptyline), anticonvulsants (such as pregabalin or gabapentin), or muscle relaxants (such as cyclobenzaprine or tizanidine).
- Physical therapy: The physical therapist may design an exercise program to help improve the strength, flexibility, and endurance of the muscles and joints. Exercise can also help reduce pain, fatigue, and stress, and improve mood and sleep. The exercises may include aerobic activities (such as walking, swimming, or cycling), stretching exercises (such as yoga or tai chi), or strengthening exercises (such as resistance bands or weights).
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy: The cognitive-behavioral therapist may help the patient cope with the negative thoughts and emotions that may worsen the symptoms of fibromyalgia. The therapist may also teach the patient some relaxation techniques (such as deep breathing, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation) to help reduce stress and pain.
- Alternative therapies: Some patients may benefit from some alternative therapies that may complement the conventional treatments. These may include acupuncture, massage therapy, biofeedback, hypnosis, aromatherapy, or herbal remedies. However, these therapies are not proven to be effective for fibromyalgia and may have some side effects or interactions with other medications. Therefore, it is important to consult with the doctor before trying any of these therapies.
Fibromyalgia is a syndrome that causes chronic pain and fatigue in millions of people worldwide. It is not a disease with a known cause, but rather a complex condition that involves the brain and nervous system. Fibromyalgia can be diagnosed by using certain criteria based on the patient’s symptoms and medical history. Fibromyalgia can be treated by using a combination of medications, physical therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and alternative therapies. Fibromyalgia can affect the quality of life of the patients and their families, but with proper care and support, they can live a fulfilling and productive life.