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Fibromyalgia, also known as fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS), is a long-term chronic disorder characterised by widespread pain in muscles and joints.

A woman describing her pain to a doctor

Fibromyalgia causes are not known, but it is thought to be linked to abnormal levels of certain chemicals in the brain, affecting the way the central nervous system sends pain messages to the body. Some people are genetically more susceptible to the condition, but the condition can be triggered by a physically or emotionally stressful event. Women are much more likely to develop fibromyalgia than men.

Fibromyalgia sufferers often also have tension headaches, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), anxiety and depression.

What are its symptoms?

Fibromyalgia symptoms include:

  • Increased sensitivity to pain that is nondescript and does not seem to fit into any recognisable organic pain syndrome
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
  • Problems with mental processes like memory and concentration
  • Headaches
  • IBS – a digestive condition that causes stomach pain and bloating

There are usually periods when symptoms ease or worsen. This can be triggered by stress levels, degrees of physical activity, and even changes in temperature.

How is it diagnosed?

Fibromyalgia can be difficult to diagnose as the symptoms are vague and are often similar to those of other conditions, such as an underactive thyroid. There aren't any specific blood tests, X-rays or scans that can confirm a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, but your doctor may suggest you have blood tests to rule out certain conditions.

A fibromyalgia diagnosis is traditionally made based on 18 specific tender points in certain areas of your body, these can be tender, even when pressed very gently. But many people find that other areas are also painful. It is more common now for a diagnosis to be made if the individual experiences pain for more than three months.

Doctors also look out for excessive fatigue, waking up feeling tired and cognitive symptoms such as mood swings.

What are your treatment options?

There is no cure for fibromyalgia but there are various treatment options. Medication can help control symptoms, while exercise, relaxation and stress-reduction measures may help.

Medication is prescribed to reduce pain and improve sleep. They include:

  • Pain relievers — Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen can be helpful.
  • Antidepressants — Specific ones can help ease the pain and fatigue associated with fibromyalgia. Your doctor may prescribe ones that help treat insomnia
  • Anti-seizure drugs — Medication designed to treat epilepsy are often useful in reducing certain types of pain. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and home remedies such as ensuring sufficient sleep, following a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and managing stress levels are also recommended. There are often unresolved stress issues, so it may be useful to identify them and create a plan of action for dealing with them with your healthcare provider.

Can it be prevented?

There is no way to prevent fibromyalgia but treatment and lifestyle changes can help reduce the frequency and severity of its symptoms. Lifestyle changes used in the treatment of the condition can prevent the symptoms recurring.

Keeping a diary about your symptoms can help pinpoint the things that cause flare-ups. Listing information about what you ate, how you felt, and what you did on certain days will provide insight into what’s causing your symptoms. This diary can also help your doctor to prescribe treatment for your condition.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in January 2015