What to Know About Fibromyalgia and Migraines
According to the National Fibromyalgia Association, approximately 10 million Americans suffer from fibromyalgia1, a chronic condition that is characterized by widespread pain and by sensitivity to pressure across tender points across the body. Meanwhile, roughly 38 million Americans suffer from migraines, with anywhere from two to three million experiencing them on a chronic basis.2 Although the reasons are unclear, as many as 76 percent of those who suffer from fibromyalgia also experience chronic headaches — especially migraines.
If you suffer from migraines or from fibromyalgia, it pays to be aware of the link between the two conditions. In fact, it might be that you already experience symptoms of both of them. It also helps to understand common triggers and causes for migraines and some of the available treatments — both natural remedies and over-the-counter options — that may help to ease and treat symptoms of each.
Symptoms and Warning Signs
Several studies have shown potential links between fibromyalgia and migraines. In one study involving 100 patients who suffer from chronic migraines, 36 percent of them also had fibromyalgia.3 Patients who suffered from both conditions experienced more depression and a greater severity of pain than those who suffered from one or the other.
Migraines, or vascular headaches, are believed to be caused by changes in the size of the arteries in the brain. Certain events can trigger those fluctuations in size, including emotional stress, changes in the weather, caffeine, hormonal changes, changes in sleep patterns, excessive fatigue, and food sensitivities.4
Common warning signs of a migraine headache include the following.
- Sudden, unexplained change in mood — either becoming intensely happy or very irritable and depressed
- Digestive issues, including diarrhea, constipation, and stomach aches
- Sleep changes, including getting too much or too little sleep
- Vision changes, including blurriness, flashes, and blind spots
- Sensitivity to light and sound5
Many people who suffer from migraines also suffer from fibromyalgia. Some of the most common symptoms of fibromyalgia include the following.
- excessive sensitivity and pain when pressure is applied to “tender points” across body
- excessive fatigue
- morning stiffness
- tingling and numbness in the arms, legs, hands, or feet
- irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS
- sleep problems
- problems with concentration and memory, which is otherwise known as “fibro fog”
- depression and anxiety
- urinary problems
- painful menstrual cramps6
For fibromyalgia to be diagnosed, you must be experiencing widespread pain on both sides of the body. According to the American College of Rheumatology, which established these guidelines in 1990, the pain points must also appear above and below the waist.7 When firm pressure is applied to those points, pain should occur.
Causes and Triggers
A lot more research is needed to determine why migraines and fibromyalgia often occur together. However, like migraines and many other chronic headaches, fibromyalgia is believed to be connected to increased excitation within the nervous system. This basically means that for whatever reason, the nervous system is more excitable than is usual and overresponds to stimulation, often treating it like it is painful when it really isn’t. It is believed that abnormalities in serotonin in the body may contribute to this increased excitability.
Doctors are not sure why some people experience chronic migraines and others don’t. However, it is believed that imbalances of certain brain chemicals may be responsible. As mentioned previously, it is also believed that fluctuations in the size of the brain’s arteries could play a role. Changes in size to the brain’s arteries may be triggered by a variety of things, including simply the brain’s flight-or-flight response following emotional stress or changes in sleep patterns.
Like migraine headaches, fibromyalgia tends to be far more common in women than in men. The condition is sometimes prompted by a trauma or illness, but it can also develop with no identifiable trigger. Doctors are still uncertain as to the precise causes of fibromyalgia, which is actually a pattern of symptoms as opposed to a single condition. However, they believe that people who suffer from fibromyalgia experience increased sensitivity within their nervous systems. For unknown reasons, the nervous system in someone who suffers from fibromyalgia overreacts to stimulation that isn’t supposed to be painful. It may be that imbalances of certain brain chemicals, including serotonin, could play a role.
Conveniently, many of the most effective therapies and treatments for migraine headaches work equally well in treating the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Many people are able to bring their conditions under control through natural, or alternative, treatments and therapies. Examples of natural treatments that may help to manage or treat the symptoms of migraines and fibromyalgia include the following.
- Diet: Avoiding certain dietary triggers may help you to avoid migraines and fibromyalgia flareups. Examples of such triggers include foods that contain nitrates, like hot dogs; cheeses that contain tyramine, including Parmesan and feta; very cold foods; pickled foods; and processed foods.
- Exercise: Certain types of exercise may help to keep migraines and flareups at bay. Aerobic exercises, swimming, and yoga are all great examples of exercises that may naturally manage and treat various symptoms of these conditions.
- Acupuncture: The ancient Chinese art of acupuncture may provide relief from symptoms of fibromyalgia and migraines.
- Massage: Undergoing regular massages may help to ease tension in the body, which may help to reduce the frequency of headaches and fibromyalgia symptoms.
- Aromatherapy: Especially in the context of migraine headaches, some people find relief by deliberately inhaling certain scents. The menthol that is found in peppermint oil, for example, may help to nip an impending migraine in the bud. Also, the soothing scent of lavender may help to ease symptoms of migraines and fibromyalgia.
- Heat or Cold: Heating pads or ice packs may be applied to the body to naturally ease symptoms. Some also find relief in hot or cold showers or baths.
Many of the same medications that work for treating migraines also work for treating the symptoms of fibromyalgia. A class of antidepressants called SSRIs have shown promise, but they are only available with a prescription. Fortunately, many over-the-counter medications can be used to treat both migraines and fibromyalgia. In particular, ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin are all commonly prescribed by medical professionals. For the treatment of a migraine, a combination of aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine, which is often marketed as migraine medicine, is also often effective.8
For now, there is no definitive reason to explain why fibromyalgia sufferers so often experience chronic migraines as well. Because both of these conditions are so widespread, however, research is ongoing and should start providing better answers in the future. Recent studies concerning neuroinflammation, including inflammation found in cerebrospinal fluid, suggest that inflammation could be the culprit behind the magnified pain signals that fibromyalgia sufferers experience. Could it be that there is a link of some sort between this phenomenon and migraine headaches? If so, it could explain why the two conditions often occur together.
It will be interesting to see what new research uncovers in the future.