Fibromyalgia (or fibromyalgia syndrome) is from the family of autoimmune diseases and is a complex medical condition that affects millions of people worldwide. In fact, 5-7% of the world’s population is thought likely to develop fibromyalgia.
It is often referred to as an invisible illness as no x-ray, scan or blood test will reveal it is presence in the body. It is a chronic pain and fatigue disorder that can be difficult to diagnose, and even more difficult to manage. The symptoms of fibromyalgia vary greatly, for one person it can be very mild with occasional symptoms, for someone else, it can be debilitating and all-consuming.
In this article, we will take a look at the definition, causes and symptoms of fibromyalgia, how it can best be managed and the variety of help available for those who are experiencing the condition.
What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a condition that affects the musculoskeletal and central nervous system with patients seen to have immune system abnormalities. Fibro causes chronic widespread pain and tenderness throughout the body and the condition is chronic, that’s to say, persists over time and re-occurs.
The condition can ebb and flow as sufferers have “flare-ups” whereby the condition rears its pain-filled head for a period of time. This can then be followed by long periods of normality as the condition then retreats again and symptoms lessen and subside.
Fibro can affect people of any age or gender, in fact it can affect anyone in the general population- fibro doesn’t discriminate. Although anyone can develop fibromyalgia, the condition is more prevalent in women. It isn’t uncommon to find that people with fibromyalgia aren’t diagnosed until middle-age.
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
The exact causes of fibro are not known. However, research suggests that it is likely caused by a combination of factors that can trigger the condition, such as genetic, environmental (for example a car accident or seen in previous family history) and psychological factors.
People develop fibromyalgia with risk factors such as those believed to have experienced significant physical trauma (infection or injury) or emotional trauma (such as post-traumatic stress disorder/experiencing other emotional symptoms such as abuse of any kind) which can trigger the development of fibromyalgia. Fibro can be seen in people who are living with stress on a continual basis and even in people suffering from burnout (as burnout can be resultant from chronic continual stress, which may in turn contribute to the onset of fibromyalgia).
Symptoms of the Invisible Condition
Fibromyalgia symptoms vary greatly. No two people experience symptoms of fibro the same and therefore it’s hard to diagnose fibromyalgia. Having this said, there are common symptoms. The most common of the multitude of symptoms is widespread pain throughout the body, which may vary in intensity and type.
Pain can be throbbing or burning in nature, constant or intermittent, in the lower half of the body only (especially in the legs and buttocks) in the top half or both. Pain types vary and move around various locations within the body depending on the severity of the flare-up.
Fibro is also associated with a whole range of other symptoms, including fatigue, sleep problems and sleep disorders ranging from occasional sleep disturbances to chronic insomnia that lasts decades, headaches, and cognitive issues such as trouble concentrating, brain fog or “fibro fog”. People with fibromyalgia have low pain levels and feel pain easily especially on certain tender points around the knees, hips, and buttocks.
People with fibromyalgia may also experience major depression and anxiety as well as gastrointestinal issues and digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome due to the laborious longevity of the condition.
Impact of Fibromyalgia on Daily Life
Fibromyalgia affects all areas of life. It can have a significant impact on the daily lives of those who suffer from it and quality of life can be reduced by this condition. Pain and fatigue can make it difficult to perform simple tasks, such as getting dressed, cooking, and cleaning. It can make exercising almost impossible due to the pain and even make walking short distances arduous. These symptoms can be debilitating for some and can make it difficult to perform everyday activities.
It also has an impact on mental health as sufferers have trouble articulating things or recalling memories due to fibro fog and can easily become reclusive, not wanting to trouble family and friends, or ruin a social event with complaints about their pain.
Fibro can negatively affect intimate relationships as a supportive partner can feel helpless as they watch their loved one suffer. Some partners might even become disillusioned, disbelieving, or fed up with the sufferer, falling for the trap of viewing fibro as a “made up” condition which is “all in your head”.
What Not to Do When Having a Fibromyalgia Flare-Up
Accurate advice of what to do or not do when having a flare up is hard to provide as everyone has a varying experience of fibro. What is important when the condition rears up, is to rest and avoid activities that may exacerbate the pain, such as any activities/exercise that requires substantial physical effort. In addition, avoiding stress and caffeine can also help to reduce the intensity of the flare-up.
Tips on Managing Fibromyalgia
Managing fibromyalgia can be challenging, but there are a few lifestyle changes that may help. These include doing all that is possible to create a healthy daily routine. It’s important to guarantee enough good quality sleep, eat a balanced diet, stay hydrated, move about regularly, and taking supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids or vitamin D.
One well-known precursor for fibro and risk factors that can prompt a flare-up of fibro is stress. It’s therefore also imperative to try to minimise all types of stress wherever possible including external stressors like physical, social, work and home environments. Also internal stressors such as consumption of foods, drink or supplements which can stress the body and mind should limited as much as possible.
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Mental health tips that can reduce risk factors include finding ways to retain a positive outlook on life, finding purpose and working in a job that brings fulfilment. In addition, mindset strategies designed to relieve pain, and which activate the parasympathetic nervous system (such as mentally telling each part of the body that there isn’t any immediate threat to it); used in conjunction with relaxation techniques, have proven effective in reducing pain or even stopping pain when it occurs.
The key to managing fibro and having good quality of life is being kind to oneself, adopting healthy self-care practices and being secure in the knowledge that a flare-up will pass.
Where Can I Get Help with Fibro?
To treat fibromyalgia and to get fibromyalgia diagnosed correctly, it’s crucial to get professional help and much help is available for fibromyalgia patients. If you are struggling with fibromyalgia, there are a number of resources available to help such as a local or national support group that can provide emotional and practical support.
It will likely be most beneficial however to see a physical therapist at least until the condition has been diagnosed. Healthcare professionals like a doctor or rheumatologist (as it can be considered as one of many rheumatic conditions) can advise on how best to manage the condition and can prescribe medications which can help with pain management.
There are some medications that are known to reduce pain work best with fibro such as pregabalin  and gabapentin . Other medications that are used primarily to treat other conditions (such as for nerve pain) can help to relieve fibro symptoms too. Fibromyalgia treated with the connect medication may vastly reduce the majority of symptoms.
Fibromyalgia is a complex condition that can have a significant impact on daily life. While the exact cause is unknown and more research is required to fully understand this condition, it is likely caused by a combination of mental and physical factors.
It is important to take steps to manage the condition which can be niggling to some and totally debilitating to others. If fibromyalgia is suspected, it is important to see a doctor or specialist to get an accurate diagnosis as often diagnoses can initially be confused with other conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Suffice to know, that with the right treatment and management, it is possible to reduce the severity and frequency of symptoms so that fibro becomes more of an annoyance than a life-crippling condition.
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