What is Fibromyalgia?
Picture this scene: you are sitting in a doctor’s office, wondering if this will be the appointment that finally sheds light on your situation. You’ve been feeling strangely sensitive to touch and temperature changes in recent months. You’ve even noticed more widespread pain throughout your body, which has made it a bit more challenging to sleep and has made you more fatigued. At first you thought your arthritis was worsening, but you’ve begun to suspect this is not the case. Finally, the physician walks through the door and greets you by gently shaking your hand. She sits across from you and, after a bit of conversation about your day and your symptoms, tells you she suspects you have fibromyalgia. You’ve heard the term on television and from a few of your friends with the disease, but you aren’t sure what it is or what it means to have fibromyalgia.
At first, being diagnosed with fibromyalgia can be concerning and confusing. In the remainder of this article, we will demystify what it means to have fibromyalgia, it’s causes and treatments. Before we get into the details of fibromyalgia, let’s first explore who is affected by the disease. According to the Center for Disease Control, fibromyalgia is relatively common in the United States, with an estimated 4 million adults suffering from the disease in the country.1 Most often, fibromyalgia affects adults, people of all ages can be diagnosed with the disease. Men and women are both susceptible to fibromyalgia, with women being diagnosed with it about four times as often as men.2 Certainly, sufferers of fibromyalgia are not alone in their struggles. With fibromyalgia being so prevalent in the population, there are a variety of resources and organizations that work to build a community of those with fibromyalgia and their families to provide support and education. Among these organizations, the National Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Association (NFMCPA) may be the most well-known. The NFMCPA offers a comprehensive overview of current fibromyalgia treatments, as well as programs to provide community support to those with the disease. The NFMCPA website offers information of support groups and on yearly advocacy events held by the organization.3
Now that we have an understanding of who is affected by fibromyalgia and of the community of those inflicted with the disease, let’s discuss what it means to have fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia and arthritis are often associated together as they present with similar symptoms, but do not have the same exact effects on the body. Arthritis presents with joint inflammation and can be localized to one side of the body, whereas fibromyalgia has no joint damage or inflammation and is characterized by widespread pain. Additionally, arthritis is caused by an immune response and can worsen over time, but fibromyalgia does not progress over time.4 The symptoms of fibromyalgia can vary in severity from patient to patient. The most prevalent symptom of fibromyalgia is the widespread pain and tenderness throughout the body, but there are other symptoms that often occur alongside the pain. Patients may suffer from memory problems, trouble staying focused, sleep impairment, headaches, depression and anxiety.1 Stress can make the symptoms of fibromyalgia increase in severity.
Unfortunately, the causes of fibromyalgia are currently unknown and, thus, there is as of yet no cure for the disease. However, living with fibromyalgia can be made manageable through proper treatment. Patients who communicate with their doctors openly and honestly about their symptoms benefit by receiving effective treatment. Doctors can suggest a variety of treatments for fibromyalgia pain, though the most common treatment involves pain management through medication.1 Depending on the severity of the fibromyalgia, doctors may prescribe over-the-counter medications or prescription medications to combat fibromyalgia pain, as well as sleep loss and depression arising from the disease. Some prescription medications used to treat fibromyalgia pain include, but are not limited to, Lyrica, Cymbalta and Savella, all of which are FDA approved. To target specific spots of tenderness and increased sensitivity, a physician may suggest lidocaine injections into those specific spots to alleviate the sharper pain. Since fibromyalgia pain often makes sleeping difficult, sleep-aiding medications such as Ambien may be prescribed.5
Medication is by no means the only treatment option for fibromyalgia, however. Indeed, medication alone is rarely the only treatment plan suggested to patients, as medication in concert with other pain management techniques is generally most effective. Other forms of fibromyalgia treatment include stress management, cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise and improvement of sleep habits.1 Living with chronic pain can be emotionally draining, meaning that taking care of one’s mental health and emotional well-being is integral to treating diseases like fibromyalgia.Cognitive behavioral therapy allows patients to communicate any emotional distress caused by their experience with chronic pain to a therapist or psychiatrist who can help patients acquire techniques that will allow them to healthily process those negative emotions. Active therapies, such as aerobic exercise and yoga, function to both alleviate stress that can worsen the symptoms of fibromyalgia and maintain muscle strength. Physical therapy techniques like water therapy, therapeutic massage and chiropractic exercises may also alleviate some of the pain and stiffness from fibromyalgia.5
Medication, education and alternative therapies are all important parts of fibromyalgia treatment, but perhaps the most important facet of managing living with fibromyalgia is having a strong support system. Knowing that one is not alone in his or her struggle with fibromyalgia is necessary to the maintenance of high patient morale. Working with a counselor or even with a physician to communicate with patients families can provide patients with a support system of knowledgeable and empathetic confidants. Reaching out to others in the fibromyalgia community by participating in advocacy events and support groups allows patients to feel connected to others and to feel that they are not alone in their struggle. Combining all four of these pieces of fibromyalgia treatment sets patients up to be treated in the most effective manner possible.