Fibromyalgia syndrome is a common and chronic disorder characterized by widespread pain, diffuse tenderness, and a number of other symptoms. The word “fibromyalgia” comes from the Latin term for fibrous tissue (fibro) and the Greek ones for muscle (myo) and pain (algia).
Although fibromyalgia is often considered an arthritis-related condition, it is not truly a form of arthritis (a disease of the joints) because it does not cause inflammation or damage to the joints, muscles, or other tissues. Like arthritis, however, fibromyalgia can cause significant pain and fatigue, and it can interfere with a person’s ability to carry on daily activities. Also like arthritis, fibromyalgia is considered a rheumatic condition, a medical condition that impairs the joints and/or soft tissues and causes chronic pain.
Who Gets Fibromyalgia? What Causes Fibromyalgia? How Is Fibromyalgia Diagnosed? How Is Fibromyalgia Treated? Will Fibromyalgia Get Better With Time? What Can I Do to Try to Feel Better? What Research Is Being Conducted on Fibromyalgia? Where Can People Find More Information About Fibromyalgia? Key Words Information Box Tips for Good Sleep
In addition to pain and fatigue, people who have fibromyalgia may experience a variety of other symptoms including:
cognitive and memory problems (sometimes referred to as “fibro fog”) sleep disturbances morning stiffness headaches irritable bowel syndrome painful menstrual periods numbness or tingling of the extremities restless legs syndrome temperature sensitivity sensitivity to loud noises or bright lights.
A person may have two or more coexisting chronic pain conditions. Such conditions can include chronic fatigue syndrome, endometriosis, fibromyalgia, inflammatory bowel disease, interstitial cystitis, temporomandibular joint dysfunction, and vulvodynia. It is not known whether these disorders share a common cause.
Who Gets Fibromyalgia?
Scientists estimate that fibromyalgia affects 5 million Americans age 18 or older.1 For unknown reasons, between 80 and 90 percent of those diagnosed with fibromyalgia are women; however, men and children also can be affected. Most people are diagnosed during middle age, although the symptoms often become present earlier in life.
1Lawrence RC, Felson DT, Helmick CG, Arnold LM, Choi H, Deyo RA, Gabriel S, Hirsch R, Hochberg MC, Hunder GG, Jordan JM, Katz JN, Kremers HM, Wolfe F; National Arthritis Data Workgroup. Estimates of the prevalence of arthritis and other rheumatic conditions in the United States. Part II. Arthritis Rheum. 2008 Jan;58(1):26-35.
People with certain rheumatic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus (commonly called lupus), or ankylosing spondylitis (spinal arthritis) may be more likely to have fibromyalgia, too.
Several studies indicate that women who have a family member with fibromyalgia are more likely to have fibromyalgia themselves, but the exact reason for this—whether it is heredity, shared environmental factors, or both—is unknown. Researchers are trying to determine whether variations in certain genes cause some people to be more sensitive to stimuli, which lead to pain syndromes. (See “What Research Is Being Conducted on Fibromyalgia?”)
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
The causes of fibromyalgia are unknown, but there are probably a number of factors involved. Many people associate the development of fibromyalgia with a physically or emotionally stressful or traumatic event, such as an automobile accident. Some connect it to repetitive injuries. Others link it to an illness. For others, fibromyalgia seems to occur spontaneously.
Many researchers are examining other causes, including problems with how the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) processes pain.
Some scientists speculate that a person’s genes may regulate the way his or her body processes painful stimuli. According to this theory, people with fibromyalgia may have a gene or genes that cause them to react strongly to stimuli that most people would not perceive as painful. There have already been several genes identified that occur more commonly in fibromyalgia patients, and NIAMS-supported researchers are currently looking at other possibilities.
How Is Fibromyalgia Diagnosed?
Research shows that people with fibromyalgia typically see many doctors before receiving the diagnosis. One reason for this may be that pain and fatigue, the main symptoms of fibromyalgia, overlap with those of many other conditions. Therefore, doctors often have to rule out other potential causes of these symptoms before making a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. Another reason is that there are currently no diagnostic laboratory tests for fibromyalgia; standard laboratory tests fail to reveal a physiologic reason for pain. Because there is no generally accepted, objective test for fibromyalgia, some doctors unfortunately may conclude a patient’s pain is not real, or they may tell the patient there is little they can do.
A doctor familiar with fibromyalgia, however, can make a diagnosis based on criteria established by the American College of Rheumatology (ACR): a history of widespread pain lasting more than 3 months, and other general physical symptoms including fatigue, waking unrefreshed, and cognitive (memory or thought) problems. In making the diagnosis, doctors consider the number of areas throughout the body in which the patient has had pain in the past week.
How Is Fibromyalgia Treated?
Fibromyalgia can be difficult to treat. Not all doctors are familiar with fibromyalgia and its treatment, so it is important to find a doctor who is. Many family physicians, general internists, or rheumatologists (doctors who specialize in arthritis and other conditions that affect the joints or soft tissues) can treat fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia treatment often requires a team approach, with your doctor, a physical therapist, possibly other health professionals, and most importantly, yourself, all playing an active role. It can be hard to assemble this team, and you may struggle to find the right professionals to treat you. When you do, however, the combined expertise of these various professionals can help you improve your quality of life.
You may find several members of the treatment team you need at a clinic. There are pain clinics that specialize in pain and rheumatology clinics that specialize in arthritis and other rheumatic diseases, including fibromyalgia.
Only three medications, duloxetine, milnacipran, and pregabalin are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of fibromyalgia.2 Duloxetine was originally developed for and is still used to treat depression. Milnacipran is similar to a drug used to treat depression but is FDA approved only for fibromyalgia. Pregaballin is a medication developed to treat neuropathic pain (chronic pain caused by damage to the nervous system).
Doctors also treat fibromyalgia with a variety of other medications developed and approved for other purposes.
2All medicines can have side effects. Some medicines and side effects are mentioned in this publication. Some side effects may be more severe than others. You should review the package insert that comes with your medicine and ask your health care provider or pharmacist if you have any questions about the possible side effects.
Analgesics are painkillers. They range from over-the-counter products to prescription medicines. For a subset of people with fibromyalgia, narcotic medications are prescribed for severe muscle pain. However, there is no solid evidence showing that for most people narcotics actually work to treat the chronic pain of fibromyalgia, and most doctors hesitate to prescribe them for long-term use because of the potential that the person taking them will become physically or psychologically dependent on them.
Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)
As their name implies, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium, are used to treat inflammation.3 Although inflammation is not a symptom of fibromyalgia, NSAIDs also relieve pain. The drugs work by inhibiting substances in the body called prostaglandins, which play a role in pain and inflammation. These medications, some of which are available without a prescription, may help ease the muscle aches of fibromyalgia. They may also relieve menstrual cramps and the headaches often associated with fibromyalgia.
3 Warning: NSAIDs can cause stomach irritation or, less often, they can affect kidney function. The longer a person uses NSAIDs, the more likely he or she is to have side effects, ranging from mild to serious. Many other drugs cannot be taken when a patient is being treated with NSAIDs because NSAIDs alter the way the body uses or eliminates these other drugs. Check with your health care provider or pharmacist before you take NSAIDs. Also, NSAIDs sometimes are associated with serious gastrointestinal problems, including ulcers, bleeding, and perforation of the stomach or intestine. People age 65 and older, as well as those with any history of ulcers or gastrointestinal bleeding, should use NSAIDs with caution.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Many people with fibromyalgia also report varying degrees of success with complementary and alternative therapies, including massage, movement therapies (such as Pilates and the Feldenkrais method), chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, and various herbs and dietary supplements for different fibromyalgia symptoms. (For more information on complementary and alternative therapies, contact the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. See “Where Can People Find More Information About Fibromyalgia?”)
Although some of these supplements are being studied for fibromyalgia, there is little, if any, scientific proof yet that they help. FDA does not regulate the sale of dietary supplements, so information about side effects, proper dosage, and the amount of a preparation’s active ingredients may not be well known. If you are using or would like to try a complementary or alternative therapy, you should first speak with your doctor, who may know more about the therapy’s effectiveness, as well as whether it is safe to try in combination with your medications.
Will Fibromyalgia Get Better With Time?
Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition, meaning it lasts a long time—possibly a lifetime. However, it may be comforting to know that fibromyalgia is not a progressive disease. It is never fatal, and it will not cause damage to the joints, muscles, or internal organs. In many people, the condition does improve over time.
What Can I Do to Try to Feel Better?
Besides taking medicine prescribed by your doctor, there are many things you can do to minimize the impact of fibromyalgia on your life. These include:
Getting enough sleep. Getting enough sleep and the right kind of sleep can help ease the pain and fatigue of fibromyalgia (see “Tips for Good Sleep”). Even so, many people with fibromyalgia have problems such as pain, restless legs syndrome, or brainwave irregularities that interfere with restful sleep. It is important to discuss any sleep problems with your doctor, who can prescribe or recommend treatment for them. Exercising. Although pain and fatigue may make exercise and daily activities difficult, it is crucial to be as physically active as possible. Research has repeatedly shown that regular exercise is one of the most effective treatments for fibromyalgia. People who have too much pain or fatigue to do vigorous exercise should begin with walking or other gentle exercise and build their endurance and intensity slowly.
Making changes at work. Most people with fibromyalgia continue to work, but they may have to make big changes to do so. For example, some people cut down the number of hours they work, switch to a less demanding job, or adapt a current job. If you face obstacles at work, such as an uncomfortable desk chair that leaves your back aching or difficulty lifting heavy boxes or files, your employer may make adaptations that will enable you to keep your job. An occupational therapist can help you design a more comfortable workstation or find more efficient and less painful ways to lift.
Eating well. Although some people with fibromyalgia report feeling better when they eat or avoid certain foods, no specific diet has been proven to influence fibromyalgia. Of course, it is important to have a healthy, balanced diet. Not only will proper nutrition give you more energy and make you generally feel better, it will also help you avoid other health problems.
Tips for Good Sleep Keep regular sleep habits. Try to get to bed at the same time and get up at the same time every day—even on weekends and vacations. Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the late afternoon and evening. If consumed too close to bedtime, the caffeine in coffee, soft drinks, chocolate, and some medications can keep you from sleeping or sleeping soundly. Even though it can make you feel sleepy, drinking alcohol around bedtime also can disturb sleep. Time your exercise. Regular daytime exercise can improve nighttime sleep. But avoid exercising within 3 hours of bedtime, which actually can be stimulating, keeping you awake. Avoid daytime naps. Sleeping in the afternoon can interfere with nighttime sleep. If you feel you cannot get by without a nap, set an alarm for 1 hour. When it goes off, get up and start moving. Reserve your bed for sleeping. Watching the late news, reading a suspense novel, or working on your laptop in bed can stimulate you, making it hard to sleep. Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool. Avoid liquids and spicy meals before bed. Heartburn and late-night trips to the bathroom are not conducive to good sleep. Wind down before bed. Avoid working right up to bedtime. Do relaxing activities, such as listening to soft music or taking a warm bath, that get you ready to sleep. (A warm bath also may soothe aching muscles.)