Fibromyalgia is the one of the most common musculoskeletal conditions. Still, it is often misdiagnosed and misunderstood. Its characteristics include widespread muscle and joint pain and fatigue, as well as other symptoms. Fibromyalgia can lead to depression and social isolation.
It is still unclear why some people develop fibromyalgia. The exact cause is unknown, but it’s likely that a number of factors are involved which may include:
Abnormal pain messages
One of the main theories is that people with fibromyalgia have developed changes in the way the central nervous system processes the pain messages carried around the body. This could be due to changes to chemicals in the nervous system. The central nervous system (brain, spinal cord and nerves) transmits information all over the body through a network of specialized cells. Changes in the way this system works may explain why fibromyalgia results in constant feelings of and extreme sensitivity to, pain.
It has been observed that people with fibromyalgia have abnormally low levels of the hormones serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine in their brains. Low levels of these hormones may be a key factor in the cause of fibromyalgia, as they’re important in regulating things such as:
- response to stressful situations
These hormones also play a role in processing pain messages sent by the nerves. Increasing the hormone levels with medication can disrupt these signals. Some researchers have also suggested that changes in the levels of some other hormones, such as cortisol (which is released when the body is under stress), may contribute to fibromyalgia.
It’s possible that disturbed sleep patterns may be a cause of fibromyalgia, rather than just a symptom. Fibromyalgia can prevent you from sleeping deeply and cause fatigue (extreme tiredness). People with the condition who sleep badly can also have higher levels of pain, suggesting that these sleep problems contribute to the other symptoms of fibromyalgia.
It has also been observed that genetics may play a small part in the development of fibromyalgia, with some people perhaps more likely than others to develop the condition because of their genes. If this is the case, genetics could explain why many people develop fibromyalgia after some sort of trigger.
Fibromyalgia is often triggered by a stressful event, including physical stress or emotional (psychological) stress. Possible triggers for the condition include:
- an injury
- a viral infection
- giving birth
- having an operation
- the breakdown of a relationship
- being in an abusive relationship
- the death of a loved one
There are several other conditions often associated with fibromyalgia. Generally, these are rheumatic conditions (affecting the joints, muscles and bones), such as:
- osteoarthritis – when damage to the joints causes pain and stiffness
- lupus – when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells and tissues in various parts of the body
- rheumatoid arthritis – when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in the joints, causing pain and swelling
- ankylosing spondylitis – pain and swelling in parts of the spine
- temporomandibular disorder (TMD) – a condition that can cause pain in the jaw, cheeks, ears and temples
Conditions such as these are usually tested for when diagnosing fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia is far more common in women than in men. Some interesting studies show that men make serotonin at a much faster rate than women — about 50% faster. That explains to a large extent why fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS), is more common in women. The condition typically develops between the ages of 30 and 50, but can occur in people of any age, including children and the elderly.
Although there is officially no cure for fibromyalgia, there are tips that may help ease some of the pains and improve quality of living. These include:
- Seeing a General Practitioner: A General Practitioner will play an important role in the treatment and care of fibromyalgia. In some cases, different healthcare professionals like the rheumatologists, neurologist, and psychologist may also get involved.
- Information and support: You may find it helpful to research fibromyalgia to improve your understanding of the condition. Many people also find support groups helpful. Just talking to someone who knows what you’re going though can make you feel better.
- Medication: You may need to take several types of medicines for fibromyalgia, including painkillers, antidepressants, Muscle relaxants, Anticonvulsants. Antidepressants used to treat fibromyalgia include: tricyclic antidepressants – such as amitriptyline, serotonin-noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) – such as duloxetine and venlafaxine, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)– such as fluoxetine and paroxetine
Asides medication, there are other treatment options that can be used to help cope with the pain of fibromyalgia, such as:
- swimming, sitting or exercising in a heated pool or warm water (known as hydrotherapy or balneotherapy)
- an individually tailored exercise programme
- cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – a talking therapy that aims to change the way you think about things, so you can tackle problems more positively
- psychotherapy – a talking therapy that helps you understand and deal with your thoughts and feelings
- relaxation techniques
- psychological support – any kind of counselling or support group that helps you deal with issues caused by fibromyalgia
Some people with fibromyalgia try complementary or alternative treatments, such as:
There’s little scientific evidence that such treatments help in the long term. However, some people find that certain treatments help them to relax and feel less stressed, allowing them to cope with their condition better.