Fibromyalgia - Causes, Symptoms and Treatment
What is Fibromyalgia?
Sometimes called fibrositis, this is a disease characterized by a number of different signs and symptoms. Unfortunately, there's still quite a lot that isn't fully understood about the disease. In fact, there has even been widespread debate about whether or not it actually exists.
Today, most scientists and medical professionals alike agree that it is indeed a very real disease with equally real symptoms. Fortunately, the days of assuming that someone who claims to be suffering from fibromyalgia is only looking for attention or is dealing with some type of mental disorder seem to be largely in the past. Nevertheless, it's still not something that's well understood in terms of why it happens to some people or exactly how best to deal with it.
In this article, you'll learn more about the potential triggers for fibromyalgia, in addition to signs and symptoms that typically accompany the disease. Last but certainly not least, you'll learn more about potential treatment options, keeping in mind that some options work better for some patients than others.
Table of Contents
- What is fibromyalgia?
- Fibromyalgia Defined
- Is Fibromyalgia Only About Joint Pain?
- Signs and Symptoms of Fibromyalgia
- Additional Symptoms of Fibromyalgia
- Mental and Emotional Symptoms
- What Causes Fibromyalgia?
- Why Does It Cause Widespread Pain?
- Is Fibromyalgia Hereditary?
- Is Fibromyalgia Neurological?
- Who Is Most at Risk of Developing Fibromyalgia?
- Getting a Diagnosis
- Finding Relief
- Non-Traditional Forms of Relief
- Are These Alternative Forms of Therapy Really Effective?
- Topical Pain Relievers
Individuals who suffer from this condition typically have a lot of pain and tenderness throughout the body. In fact, one of the key signatures of fibromyalgia involves widespread pain that can't be explained through any other means. Therefore, a fibromyalgia diagnosis is largely accomplished more through a process of elimination than anything else.
There is no definitive test to determine that someone has this disease, at least not at this time. Typically, a person suffers from pain and tenderness that exists all over their body, especially in their joints. They may feel a lot of stiffness in those joints. This typically causes people to visit their physician in order to find the root cause of the problem. More often than not, once every other possibility has been eliminated, a fibromyalgia diagnosis comes into play.
Therefore, a person who has this condition may suffer from it for years before it's ever diagnosed. This can potentially make the symptoms worse and it might make it harder to get a handle on the disease once a diagnosis has been made.
Is Fibromyalgia Only About Joint Pain?
Unfortunately, as doctors learn more about the disease, they have discovered that there are typically other things involved with a fibromyalgia diagnosis than just joint pain and stiffness. It's also common to see patients who are affected in different ways. They may have specific flare-ups that involve digestive issues or severe headaches. There's also a chance that fibromyalgia could adversely impact a person's emotional and mental health. More will be discussed about these potential issues in the following paragraph.
Signs and Symptoms of Fibromyalgia
As previously mentioned, the most commonly reported symptoms associated with this condition is widespread pain. This typically involves the joints, as discussed in the above paragraph. However, it can involve pain and tenderness in the muscles throughout the body. In addition to this pain, people who suffer from the condition are likely to experience a great deal of fatigue. They may wake up feeling as if they never went to bed, and in many cases, they feel this same level of fatigue regardless of how much rest they get. They may also exhibit cognitive difficulties such as problems concentrating or focusing on one specific task. In fact, this occurs so much that people have given it the nickname “fibro fog” (Mayo Clinic 2020).
For people who are on the outside looking in, this can make people who have fibromyalgia appear disconnected from the rest of the world. They may seem to be less engaged than others, or they may not seem to care about a task as much as other individuals who are involved. The truth is, they may care just as much, if not more. In reality, it may be the disease-causing the problem. This is one of the battles that so many people who have fibromyalgia have come up against. They don't necessarily appear sick.
Therefore, a lot of people have problems believing that they really are suffering as much as they claim to be suffering. They're often accused of simply being lazy or not caring as much as they should. The cold, hard truth is that they may be pushing themselves beyond their limits to do their very best, and they are just misunderstood. Constantly pushing themselves may only serve to make the symptoms of the disease worse over time.
Additional Symptoms of Fibromyalgia
One of the things that confuses most medical professionals is that some fibromyalgia patients also exhibit a number of additional symptoms. These symptoms may include problems with the joints of the jaw, frequently called a temporomandibular joint disorder, irritable bowel syndrome, migraine, painful bladder syndrome, restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea (Mayo Clinic 2020).
The thing that is so confusing for doctors is that it isn't yet well understood if fibromyalgia actually causes these other conditions or if the other conditions somehow trigger fibromyalgia. At this point, there just isn't enough information about the disease to make a definitive determination about why so many patients with fibromyalgia also exhibit one or all of these additional conditions.
Until researchers gain a better understanding of why fibromyalgia happens and how it works in the body, doctors are largely reduced to trying to find ways to help patients manage their symptoms. More about effective management of the signs and symptoms will be included in a later paragraph.
Mental and Emotional Symptoms
In some patients, fibromyalgia goes beyond physical or cognitive difficulties. For some individuals, the condition can also cause problems with mental and emotional health, often resulting in severe irritability or even a feeling of impending doom. Many people who suffer from fibromyalgia also experience depression and anxiety.
In some cases, these symptoms can become severe enough that they need to be treated on their own in order to help these patients continue to move forward. Again, it's not well understood how the symptoms play on each other. Doctors don't yet understand if the fibromyalgia itself causes depression and anxiety or if patients begin to experience these conditions because of the continued pain and lack of sleep that often accompanies high levels of pain.
In any case, patients who are suffering from depression and anxiety need to have those issues dealt with in order to live their best life. Therefore, it's not uncommon to see a fibromyalgia patient who is receiving some type of treatment for pain and other outlying conditions, including depression and anxiety.
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
This is another thing that is not yet widely understood. Unfortunately, those in the medical community don't yet have a thorough understanding about the specific causes of fibromyalgia. Some of them believe that the condition may be triggered in the wake of some other type of trauma such as an accident, a serious illness or an operation (Mayo Clinic 2020).
However, researchers are not yet certain that this is the definitive cause of fibromyalgia. The matter is further complicated with the emergence of patients who have not yet suffered any of those particular traumas, yet are presenting with symptoms consistent with this diagnosis. This leads some medical professionals to believe that fibromyalgia may be present in patients from an early age and that it may go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for a number of years.
Why Does It Cause Widespread Pain?
The current research suggests that fibromyalgia changes the way the brain processes pain signals, in effect amplifying those signals until pain levels are greatly increased (Mayo Clinic 2020). At its worst, a patient's skin may become so sensitive to touch that they can scarcely even stand to have sheets touching their skin at night. At other times, the condition may barely even be noticeable.
The one thing that is well-known, even if not yet well understood, is that almost all fibromyalgia patients have flare-ups. This means that their condition may be virtually non-existent at times, only to come roaring back worse than ever for a few days or even a few weeks before it begins to subside. One of the things that has been so confusing for medical professionals is why a patient may appear almost symptom-free at certain times in their lives and then experience a dramatic increase in symptoms only a few days later.
Most people who suffer from this disease have a tendency to cycle through these different stages of the condition. One of the theories that has gained popularity is that flare-ups can occur when a person suffering from fibromyalgia becomes overly stressed or when they're not getting enough rest. Therefore, additional physical or mental stress may cause the condition to become far worse. It only serves to underline the fact that a great deal more research needs to be done in order to figure out exactly how this disease affects the body and why it occurs.
Is Fibromyalgia Hereditary?
This is a question that more researchers are beginning to ask. It's not yet definitively known whether or not fibromyalgia is truly genetic.
However, it is known that the disease does tend to run in families. This leads a lot of medical professionals to believe that there must be some type of genetic mutation that makes a person more susceptible to disease if nothing else (Mayo Clinic 2020).
That said, it's not yet been proven that this is actually the case. It's merely one more area of speculation that doctors are looking at in order to try and better ascertain why fibromyalgia occurs and how best to treat it.
Is Fibromyalgia Neurological?
As previously mentioned, medical professionals aren't entirely certain how this particular disease process occurs or why it exists. However, there is some evidence to suggest that it may be neurological in nature. Research has suggested that people who suffer from fibromyalgia have a change in brain chemistry that affects the way they perceive pain. This was briefly touched on in an earlier paragraph but it's worth diving into a bit deeper.
A great deal of research on this condition has suggested that the neurotransmitters inside a person's brain react differently when it comes to fibromyalgia patients. It's believed that this causes the brain to overreact to any pain signals whatsoever, effectively causing the patient to feel more pain than they might otherwise have to endure. The question is whether or not the problem originates in the brain itself or if it is the repeated experience of pain that eventually changes the brain chemistry (Mayo Clinic 2020).
Unfortunately, researchers haven't been able to come up with an answer to this question as of yet. However, the research that has occurred has led a number of people to speculate that fibromyalgia may be a neurological condition that is not yet well understood. Others believe that it is closer to an immunological disorder. To say the least, the jury is still out on this particular question as well as a number of other questions associated with this disease.
Who Is Most at Risk of Developing Fibromyalgia?
Current research suggests that those with other family members who have previously been diagnosed with the condition are far more likely to develop it themselves. Also, individuals appear to be more likely to eventually develop fibromyalgia if they've already been diagnosed with certain other chronic health conditions.
For example, people with lupus or rheumatoid arthritis seem to be more prone to developing fibromyalgia, again leading researchers to wonder if this particular disease is also immunological in nature. In addition, the condition is far more common in women than it is in men (Mayo Clinic 2020). So far, researchers have not been able to pinpoint why this is the case, only that more women have been diagnosed with the disease.
Getting a Diagnosis
As previously mentioned, there is no specific test that can definitively determine that a person has fibromyalgia. Therefore, most doctors use a process that rules out other potential issues. A number of patients undergo blood tests designed to check for thyroid disorders, certain immunological diseases (such as lupus), and other potential diseases before making a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. It typically involves a complete blood work-up and a full physical exam.
Doctors used to use these tests in combination with pressing on several different points throughout the body in order to determine pain levels as a means of diagnosing fibromyalgia. The latter part of that diagnosis was often excruciatingly painful for the patient, as one can imagine.
Today, it's rare to find a physician that uses the pain test. Instead, eliminating other diseases through blood work and physical examination, in conjunction with a patient presenting with pain that has lasted for three months or longer, is often enough to make the diagnosis (Mayo Clinic 2020).
Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment that will make the symptoms of fibromyalgia disappear. There isn't even a treatment that is guaranteed to reduce those symptoms. In some cases, doctors use certain prescription medications designed to control seizures as a means of trying to keep the pain under control. This may work for some patients, but it doesn't work as well for certain individuals as it does for others. Doctors frequently recommend over the counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen (Mayo Clinic 2020).
Again, this may only serve to dull the pain and in many cases, it doesn't prove to be an effective means of treatment at all. As a result, many patients turn to other resources in hopes of finding some type of relief, not only from the physical symptoms but also from the mental and emotional symptoms as well.
Non-Traditional Forms of Relief
In an attempt to stay one step ahead of their diagnosis, many fibromyalgia patients undergo some type of physical therapy. The goal is typically to reduce pain and increase mobility. Because of their condition, it's often difficult or even impossible for them to participate in any type of intense workout regimen.
Therefore, they may do better with gentle strengthening and stretching exercises. Many patients find some degree of relief with aquatic therapy, certain aspects of physical therapy, or alternative forms of exercise. For many sufferers of fibromyalgia, these forms of exercise may include yoga, Tai Chi, or Qigong. Some individuals have also decided to employ other ways of alternative treatment that incorporate some Eastern therapies into their routine. This may include changing their nutrition, participating in acupuncture sessions, or seeking out different kinds of treatment such as Reiki or massage therapy.
All of these things may work in conjunction to help individuals who suffer from fibromyalgia feel less pain. In addition, some of those therapies may also help them experience fewer issues related to anxiety and depression. A few enterprising individuals have even taken to art or music therapy as a means of keeping their minds engaged in hopes of reducing the dreaded cognitive fog that is often associated with the disease.
Are These Alternative Forms of Therapy Really Effective?
Just as the debate rages on concerning so many questions about fibromyalgia itself, so too does the debate concerning the potential effectiveness of many alternative forms of therapy.
Some people who have been diagnosed with the disease are likely to find far more comfort in things like Tai Chi and massage therapy than they are in over the counter pain medications. Others may find that those things don't necessarily help their condition, and some may even find that their condition is exacerbated by participating in such activities. Some people have participated in a Reiki session and felt nothing afterward, while others have experienced a dramatic improvement in their condition. This includes fibromyalgia patients and individuals suffering from other conditions alike.
For those who don't know what a Reiki session is, it's somewhat like massage therapy, only it deals with the energy associated with the body as opposed to physically manipulating the muscles. Originating in the Far East, it's believed that by manipulating this energy, a Reiki healer may be able to help a person feel better, both physically and mentally. The idea is to clear out negative or stagnant energy and replace it with positive energy that then flows through the body.
It's easy to scoff at this idea, especially for those who haven't actually participated in a session. However, there have been cases of individuals who had serious medical conditions and were helped by this type of therapy (Schifano, A. 2007). Therefore, it is an option available to those who have fibromyalgia. Even if it only improves their mental or emotional well-being, it's well worth the time spent in order to experience that improvement.
Topical Pain Relievers
Another thing that is often overlooked involves topical pain relievers. Almost everyone has used these at one time or another. They're quite effective when it comes to dealing with sore muscles or a joint that is particularly tender after a workout. By the same token, these types of pain relievers may work just as effectively for individuals who suffer from fibromyalgia. The key is finding the right one. There are dozens of these types of pain relievers available over the counter and even more that are available by prescription.
For those who are looking for a more natural approach to the problem, one of the premier pain relievers of its type is EMUAID®. Individuals who want to maintain a healthy lifestyle and use products that are natural, as opposed to potentially harmful medication, may want to try this approach. Some patients may be pleasantly surprised at the level of relief that could possibly be provided. Some products of this type include EMUAID® First Aid Ointment and EMUAIDMAX® First Aid Ointment.
At the end of the day, fibromyalgia is difficult to treat effectively because there is so little that is well understood about it. As researchers learn more about the condition, it only stands to reason that more treatment options will become available in the future. Hopefully, it will also include treatment options that are far more effective. In the meantime, patients may be able to find relief by using natural topical pain relievers in conjunction with other therapies that work best for them. The idea is to find something that is tailored to each individual, which allows them to feel their best physically and mentally.
Sources: Mayo Clinic (2020). Fibromyalgia. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/fibromyalgia/symptoms-causes/syc-20354780
Shifano, A. (2007). Reiki Therapy and Fybromyalgia. National Fibromyalgia Association. Retrieved from https://www.fmaware.org/articles/reiki-therapy-and-fibromyalgia/
Homeopathic claims are not backed by scientific evidence – they are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts.
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