What is fibromyalgia?

Dear Alice,

What is "fibromyalgia"? Heck, I'm not even sure of the spelling, but that's it phonetically, anyway. Thanks.

Dear Reader, 

Fibromyalgia (you spelled it right!) is a chronic illness that causes pain and tenderness all over the body. While it most often affects women in their mid-thirties to late fifties, it also affects men and children. The American College of Rheumatology (ACR) estimates that the condition affects roughly two to four percent of the United States population. In addition to aches and pains, it also causes fatigue, headaches, including migraines, and problems with concentration and memory (commonly referred to as "fibro fog"). This pain is commonly felt in the neck, upper and lower back, hips, elbows, and knees. Beyond these symptoms, fibromyalgia shows itself in several other ways, including: 

  • Stiffness, especially in the morning 
  • Problems sleeping 
  • Increased sensitivity to pain 
  • Facial pain 
  • Irritable bowel syndrome 
  • Painful menstrual periods 
  • Skin numbness (paresthesia) 
  • Frequent and urgent urination 

The exact cause of fibromyalgia is unknown, but researchers believe there are a number of factors that may contribute to the illness. One theory holds that people with fibromyalgia have a lower pain threshold due to increased sensitivity to pain signals in the brain. This sensitivity may be linked to elevated levels of chemicals found in spinal fluid that communicate pain signals with the brain. Another theory involves chemical changes in the brain resulting in low levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to pain, sleep, and depression. Other possible causes or triggers include repetitive injuries or trauma that affects the central nervous system, certain infections, genetics, problems with the sympathetic nervous system, hormonal changes, and physical or psychological stress. 

Because this condition may impact different areas of the body and a person's life, several types of treatments are typically recommended. Antidepressants, anti-seizure medications, and even over-the-counter medications may help relieve symptoms. In addition to medication, physical and occupational therapies can help reduce and manage the effects of fibromyalgia. With that being said, self-care is also a critical aspect of dealing with fibromyalgia. Those with the condition may want to try a yoga class, go for a bike ride, or walk around the neighborhood to slow down, boost activity level, and reduce stress. In addition, incorporating complementary therapies such as massage, Tai Chi, and acupuncture can help provide both stress and pain relief for people living with fibromyalgia. Furthermore, getting more sleep can also be beneficial as well. 

Not only does fibromyalgia affect patients physically, but it may make them more prone to mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. For example, the psychological impact and social burden around feeling guilty for complaining about their condition or fear that loved ones won't believe them can exacerbate patients' physical pain and complicate their relationships at home and at work. Utilizing counseling or fibromyalgia treatment programs that promote social support and emotional coping skills can help patients manage the physical and emotional challenges of their condition. 

If you’ve been diagnosed with or believe that you have fibromyalgia, you may want to seek treatment from a health care provider familiar with fibromyalgia. Because it can present symptoms that are similar to other diseases, ensuring that you have the correct diagnosis will not only provide you with peace of mind but also help ensure you’re receiving the most appropriate treatments.  

Here's to some clarity on a commonly misunderstood, and misspelled, condition. 

Last updated Sep 10, 2021
Originally published Sep 06, 1996