Understanding Fibromyalgia Symptoms and Triggers
Despite being one of the most prevalent chronic pain conditions in the world, fibromyalgia continues to be poorly understood. According to the National Fibromyalgia Association, there are approximately 10 million Americans living with the condition. Across the world, it is believed that approximately three to six percent of the population suffers from fibromyalgia.
Although a person is hardly alone as a sufferer of fibromyalgia, it’s easy to feel like it. From obtaining a proper diagnosis to finding effective treatment, living with the condition can be challenging. Just as there are no definitive tests for diagnosing the condition, there is no single, definitive way to treat it — and there is no cure. Rather, those who suffer from fibromyalgia rely on a variety of treatments to reduce and manage their pain and other symptoms.
What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain condition that is characterized by musculoskeletal pain throughout the body. To be diagnosed with this disease, one needs to have been experiencing pain across both sides of the body — and above and below the waist — for a period of at least three months. In addition to pain and tender points across the body, fibromyalgia causes memory, sleep, and mood issues in those who suffer from it.
Medical science has yet to determine a definitive cause or mechanism for this condition. However, it is believed that the disease somehow affects the way in which the brain processes pain signals, which are delivered via chemicals called neurotransmitters. Researchers suspect that repeated nerve stimulation in certain individuals causes changes to the brain. In particular, it is believed that the disease prompts an unusual increase in certain neurotransmitters. At the same time, it appears to cause pain receptors to develop a “memory” of painful sensations, causing them to become more sensitive and to overreact.
Although genetics may play a role, fibromyalgia is often preceded by a triggering event of some kind. Looking back, sufferers can often pinpoint a “turning point” at which symptoms first appeared, and it can often be associated with something like a traumatic accident, a bad infection, or even psychological distress.
What Are Common Symptoms of Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is difficult to diagnose is because its most common symptoms tend to be somewhat generalized, and they can also be associated with many other potential conditions. Many symptoms are associated with this condition, but the most prevalent examples include:
Widespread Pain and Tender Points across the Body
Fibromyalgia causes a persistent, dull ache that occurs throughout the body. The pain is often described as being akin to that of osteoarthritis, tendinitis, or bursitis, and it affects tendons, ligaments, and muscles on both sides of the body and above and below the waist. It also causes tender points on the body that hurt when pressed on with a finger.
People who suffer from fibromyalgia tend to feel a draining fatigue much of the time despite how much or how little sleep they get. They often wake up feeling tired even after getting a full night’s sleep.
Sleep problems are commonly associated with fibromyalgia. Sleep is often interrupted by painful sensations, and many who suffer from fibromyalgia also suffer from sleep disorders like restless legs syndrome and sleep apnea.
Cognitive and Memory Problems
Often referred to as “fibro fog,” those who suffer from fibromyalgia usually experience cognitive issues that make them feel forgetful or “out of it.” They typically struggle to concentrate, and this may affect their ability to hold down a job or to otherwise be productive.
People who suffer from fibromyalgia often also suffer from mood disorders like anxiety and depression. These mood disorders may already exist independently of the condition, or they may be triggered by it.
Triggers and Treatments of Fibromyalgia
Although fibromyalgia sometimes develops gradually and without a discernible cause, it can often be traced back to a triggering event. Such events may include:
- physical trauma
- psychological trauma
There is no single, definitive treatment for fibromyalgia. Patients typically must endure a process of trial and error before arriving at a treatment plan that works for them. The typical treatment plan usually incorporates elements from one or more of the following categories:
Certain medications may help to ease symptoms of fibromyalgia. Over-the-counter pain relievers like naproxen, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen are commonly recommended. Narcotics are not, but tramadol is sometimes prescribed. Antidepressants like milnacipran and duloxetine may be advised, and anti-seizure medications like gabapentin and pregabalin are often used to reduce pain.
Physical therapy is often prescribed to treat fibromyalgia and is used to improve strength, stamina, and flexibility.
Since mood disorders are often diagnosed along with fibromyalgia, therapy, or counseling is often recommended.
A doctor may recommend certain lifestyle changes to ease the symptoms of fibromyalgia. These may include getting more exercise, reducing stress, getting enough sleep, pacing oneself with work and other responsibilities, and consuming a healthy diet.
Many people also find relief through alternative or complementary therapies and techniques like yoga, tai chi, meditation, acupuncture, and massage.
Prognosis Living with Fibromyalgia
It’s easy to feel alone when living with fibromyalgia, but it’s important to remember that thousands of people do so while successfully managing their symptoms. Key aspects of living a full and happy life with fibromyalgia include:
- Ongoing medical care: By working closely with a doctor and other members of one’s care team, a person can develop a treatment plan that works for them.
- Regular exercise: Regular exercise, in the form of light aerobic exercise and strength training, has been shown to help ease the physical and mental symptoms of fibromyalgia.
- Emotional care: Many find significant relief by joining fibromyalgia support groups, where they can share concerns and advice with others who understand.
- Stress management: Techniques like meditation and mindfulness can help to minimize stress, which can also help to ease the symptoms of this condition.