Fibromyalgia

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Fibromyalgia, also known as fibromyositis and fibrositis, is a common chronic disease, characterized by widespread, constant pain throughout the body, sleeping disturbances, and abnormal exhaustion. The majority of people with fibromyalgia are women, in whom the initial symptoms appear between the ages of 20 and 50. However, fibromyalgia can also affect men, teenagers and children.

What causes fibromyalgia?

In some people, fibromyalgia develops with no apparent cause. In others, the disease appears after a traumatic experience such as an accident, an emotional trauma, overworking, hormonal changes, sexual or physical abuse during childhood, or a viral disease. The real cause of fibromyalgia is still unknown. Research is being done to identify the probable cause(s) of this syndrome.

What are the symptoms of fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is characterized by a variety of symptoms that vary from one person to the next and may change on an hourly or daily basis.

The following is a list of the primary symptoms:

  • non-restoring sleep (feeling of fatigue on awaking and morning stiffness that may persist during the day);
  • gastrointestinal problems (stomach or intestinal spasms, constipation, diarrhea, etc.);
  • headaches and migraines;
  • increased symptoms during times of stress;
  • increased pain due to changes in temperature (humidity, cold and air-conditioning);
  • feeling of swelling, numbness;
  • pain increased by too little or too much physical activity;
  • tendency to feel depressed, anxious and sad;
  • lack of concentration and memory loss; and
  • fatigue and muscle weakness.

Is it true that fibromyalgia “is all in the head?”

Until recently, it was very difficult for people with fibromyalgia to be diagnosed. There was no clear medical definition of the syndrome, and doctors often failed to acknowledge that the pain and fatigue were real. People with fibromyalgia were often told that their symptoms were “all in their imaginations.”

However, there is good news for individuals awaiting diagnosis and recognition of their suffering. The National Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue and Fibromyalgia Action Network recently announced there is now a consensus in Canada regarding the clinical definition and treatment of fibromyalgia. This means that all general practitioners and rheumatologists in the country have access to the tools necessary for making an official diagnosis and treating fibromyalgia, as well as chronic fatigue syndrome and myalgic encephalomyelitis.

How is fibromyalgia diagnosed?

Since the symptoms of fibromyalgia are also found in other diseases (including chronic fatigue syndrome and myalgic encephalomyelitis), it is sometimes difficult to diagnose.

The doctor must do the patient's medical history and a physical examination before suggesting a diagnosis. Once the possibility of other diseases has been eliminated, the diagnosis is made on the basis of these two main symptoms:

  • generalized pain lasting more than three months (both above and below the waist and on both the left and right side of the body, as well as on both the front and back of the body);

    AND

  • pain when pressure is applied to at least 11 of the 18 tender points (LINK TO: http://fibromyalgia.ncf.ca). The patient rarely experiences these points as painful until a doctor (or rheumatologist) familiar with the disease applies slight pressure to those sites with her thumb or a dolorimeter.

How can I locate a fibromyalgia specialist?

If you have or think you have fibromyalgia, it is very important to select a doctor who knows this syndrome. She may refer you to a rheumatologist, the acknowledged fibromyalgia specialist. However, not all rheumatologists are familiar with fibromyalgia. It may be helpful to contact a regional association to obtain the name of a doctor or rheumatologist who has worked with fibromyalgia patients.

How can fibromyalgia affect my daily life?

You may have difficulty doing some of your daily activities such as work, housekeeping, childcare, or hobbies, because of the pain or lack of energy. You may feel you have to limit them.

For some individuals, these changes are very stressful, and make them feel anxious and depressed. Participation in a self-help group can help fibromyalgia sufferers to feel less isolated, to share their experience with others who are in the same situation and who can listen and provide support and encouragement. Contact your regional association to find out about the group nearest you.

Are there treatments that can cure fibromyalgia?

At this time, fibromyalgia is incurable. However, the symptoms can be treated.

If you have fibromyalgia, the best way to treat the disease is to learn how to manage your lifestyle. Listen to what your body is telling you and adjust your life accordingly. Heat, rest, exercise and reducing or eliminating sources of stress can improve your quality of life. Associations of fibromyalgia sufferers can play an important role in treating the disease, by providing information on the topic and by giving you the opportunity to meet other fibromyalgia sufferers through self-help groups.

Here are some suggestions to help you alleviate some of the symptoms of fibromyalgia:

  • Do exercises such as walking, bicycling, or swimming to reduce pain and other symptoms.
  • Use a relaxation or breathing technique to manage your stress and/or promote better sleep.
  • Heat and massage can help relieve some muscular pain.
  • In some individuals, moderate doses of analgesics (such as Aspirin, Ibuprofen, Tylenol, Advil, etc.) may provide some relief from pain and muscle stiffness.

Many doctors prescribe antidepressants because they do not understand this syndrome. Tricyclic antidepressants may help some individuals by reducing their pain and relieving the symptoms of depression caused by the impact of fibromyalgia on their lives. Some individuals may also find this type of antidepressant useful in combating sleep disturbances. However, individuals who prefer NOT to take these medications may use relaxation techniques to improve their sleep.

Alternative therapies may also relieve fibromyalgia symptoms that cannot always be treated by traditional medicine. Here are the primary types of alternative medicine that may provide relief to fibromyalgia sufferers:

  • acupuncture;
  • biofeedback;
  • chiropractic;
  • homeopathy;
  • hypnotherapy;
  • mental imaging;
  • naturopathy; and
  • osteopathy.

How can we help persons with fibromyalgia?

Since individuals suffering from fibromyalgia appear to be healthy, they are often misunderstood by their employers or their families. This can worsen their stress and anxiety. However, this is not an imaginary disease; the pain and fatigue associated with fibromyalgia are real. To help people with fibromyalgia face their daily lives, friends and family can listen, understand, and show respect and compassion. An offer to help with an ordinary task may also be very much appreciated.