What Is Fibromyalgia (FM)?
Fibromyalgia (FM), also known as Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS) is a condition with symptoms that include widespread, pervasive and chronic pain and tenderness in the body, and muscle stiffness, often accompanied by fatigue (hence a relationship with ME/CFS), cognitive disturbance/difficulties and emotional distress. Like ME/CFS, symptoms of FM can vary from mild to severe.
FM affects between 2 and 10% of the population, and like ME/CFS, is mostly women although men and adolescents do acquire it. It tends to develop during middle adulthood.
Symptoms of FM
As well as the chronic pain, including skeletal pain, and tenderness, some or all of the following symptoms might be present:
- Neurological: dysfunctions of muscles, ligaments and joints – numbness, tingling; abnormal muscle twitch response, muscle cramps, muscle weakness; headaches, generalised weakness, dizziness, and sensory overload.
- Neurocognitive: These are usually present and include: impaired concentration and short-term memory problems, impaired speed of performance, inability to multi-task, one is easily distracted, and/or cognitive overload.
- Sleep disturbances: Like ME/CFS sufferers, most people with FM experience nonrefreshing sleep. This is usually accompanied by insomnia, frequent nocturnal awakenings, nocturnal muscle twitching, and/or restless leg syndrome.
- Autonomic and/or neuroendocrine: These include but are not limited to: cardiac arrhythmias, neuraly medicated hypotension, vertigo, temperature instability, hot/cold intolerance (intolerance to very hot or very cold weather), respiratory disturbances, irritable bowel or bladder dysfunction, dysmenorrhea, loss of adaptability and tolerance for stress, reactive depression.
- Stiffness: Generalized or even regional stiffness that is most severe upon awakening and typically lasts for hours. Stiffness can return during periods of inactivity during the day.
As with ME/CFS, symptoms can vary over time with the waxing and waning over periods of hours, days, weeks, months and so on. An increase in stress can cause a worsening of symptoms.
What Causes FM?
The cause and/or causes (known in the scientific literature as the aetiology or etiology) of FM are unclear. Like ME/CFS the trigger for FM may be different for different people. Before the onset of FM, most people enjoyed an otherwise healthy active lifestyle.
There is evidence that a physical trauma, such as a spinal injury or whiplash can trigger FM in some people. Other associated physical traumas include surgery, repetitive strain, childbirth, viral infections and chemical exposures. Emotional stress may also trigger the illness. Some people may be genetically predisposed to FM, especially when more than one family member is affected. Some cases of FM have a gradual onset with no obvious cause.
The result is a change in the way the body “talks” with the spinal cord and brain. Levels of brain chemicals and proteins may change. For the person with FM, it is as though the “volume control” is turned up too high in the brain’s pain processing centres.
How Is FM Diagnosed?
A doctor will suspect FM based on your symptoms. As with ME/CFS there are no diagnostic tests (such as X-rays or blood tests) for this illness (neither are MS, ALS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease diagnosed by bio-marker). Yet, you may need tests to rule out another health problem that can be confused with FM.
A physical exam will be required to detect tenderness and to exclude other causes of muscle pain.
Signs that suggest a diagnosis of FM are:
- Widespread pain for three months or longer;
- Abnormal tenderness at particular points around the neck, shoulder, chest, hip, knee and elbow;
- You may have one or more of the additional symptoms listed above.
How Is FM Treated?
At this point in time there is no known cure for FM. However, symptoms can be treated with both medication and non-drug treatments. An effective management program should be designed to suit the needs of the individual.
Generally, management of FM will involve a combination of:
- Education – people with FM need to understand as much as is practicable about the condition in order to decide which management approach will help them. Keep yourself informed.
- Medication – combined with other strategies, medication may be used to manage pain, reduce stress or promote sleep. Please also see our page on Sleep – including sleep hygiene.
- Exercise – a gentle aerobic exercise program, such as walking, tai chi or water-based exercise, can help to manage symptoms such as pain, fatigue and sleep disturbance. Please see our page on Exercise (Graded Exercise Therapy).
- Relaxation – stress may aggravate symptoms. Skills that can help manage stress include planning, relaxation, assertiveness and emotional management.
- Pacing – balancing rest and activity, plan your activities to make the most of your energy by alternating periods of activity with rest. Break large jobs down into small achievable tasks so that you do not overdo things. Please see our page on Pacing.
- Massage of one form or another – this can aid muscle relaxation and stress management.
- Nutrition – eating a balanced diet can help provide you with better energy levels, help to maintain your weight, give you a greater sense of wellbeing, and give you a sense of control over your life. Identify any potential food intolerances. Please see our page on Nutrition And ME/CFS.
- Support from others – You can Contact Us or contact Arthritis and Osteoporosis Victoria for information about support group locations and contact details.
Living With FM
You should find as your pain symptoms decrease due to drug treatments you are able to increase your activity levels and thus increase your mood, and hence correspondingly decrease your overall illness burden.
Hopefully with the help of your treating physician with some of the treatments and advice from above and the links to useful resources below you can find a meaningful life and some contentment despite the illness.
Websites And Online Resources
Fibromyalgia Support Australia is on Facebook, check it out here.
Western Australia’s Fibromyalgia Support Network.
Health.Com (US): Guide to the eight best fibromyalgia blogs and websites.
Fibromyalgia Information Foundation (US): Guidance for Fibromyalgia patients who are having elective surgery. Here’s a pdf version.
Fibromyalgia Network (US).
Online News Articles
Dellwo, A (2013) ‘Early Menopause & Fibromyalgia’ About.com February 19.
Dellwo, Adrienne (2011) ‘Finding footware with fibromyalgia‘, About.Com, 2nd March.
Barrow, Kate (2011) ‘Patient voices: Fibromyalgia‘, The New York Times, February.
Dellwo, Adrienne (2010) ‘Problems showering with Fibromyalgia and CFS‘, About.Com, 16th November.
Dellwo, Adrienne (2010) ‘Small fiber neuropathy in fibromyalgia‘, About.Com, 11th October.
Belluck, Pam (2010) ‘Tai Chi reported to ease fibromyalgia‘, New York Times, 18th August.
Pellegrino, J (2010) ‘Fibromyalgia in Children and Teens – Risk Factors, Symptoms, and Treatment‘, Feb 24, Prohealth.
Pellegrino, J (2010) ‘Dizziness on Rising – Dealing with a Common Symptom of Fibromyalgia and ME/CFS‘, Feb 19, Prohealth.
Oregon Fibromyalgia Research and Treatment Team (2008) ‘Guidance for fibromyalgia patients who are having elective surgery – an update‘, Prohealth, [Full text, November 18].
Lapp, C (2008) ‘Recommendations for persons with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (or Fibromyalgia) who are anticipating surgery‘, January 8th, ProHealth.
References & Journal Articles
The Canadian Fibromyalgia Clinical Case Definition and Guidelines for Medical Practitioners (Overview). Bruce M. Carruthers and Marjorie I. van de Sande, 2005.
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Ramanathan, S., et al. “Is fibromyalgia an endocrine/endorphin deficit disorder? Is low dose naltrexone a new treatment option?” Psychosomatics, 2012, 53(6): 591-594.
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Auvinet, B., et al. “The interest of gait markers in the identification of subgroups among fibromyalgia patients.” BMC Musculoskelet Disord, 2011, 12: 258.
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Thomas, R. J. “Sleep as a Window into the World of Fibromyalgia Syndrome.” The Journal of Rheumatology, 2011, 38(12): 2499-2500.
Matsumoto, S., et al. “Effects of thermal therapy combining sauna therapy and underwater exercise in patients with fibromyalgia.” Complement Ther Clin Pract, 2011, 17(3): 162-166.
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