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What is Fibromyalgia? Living with FMS

Carol Baldwin

Last updated: October 28, 2016 3:00 pm

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The National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association estimates that there are more than 10 million Americans living with fibromyalgia. While fibromyalgia predominantly affects women, they make up 80% of sufferers, it can also strike men and children. 1

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fibromyalgia strikes most often during middle age. 2 On average, fibromyalgia sufferers miss 17 days of work annually compared with 6 days for those who do not have fibromyalgia. 3 Up to half of all sufferers also experience anxiety and depression. 4

Clearly, having fibromyalgia can prove debilitating and it is easy to understand why fibromyalgia is a growing health concern. So, exactly what is fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia Syndrome or FMS

A syndrome is a group of symptoms that characterize a condition or disease. According to the CDC, fibromyalgia is a chronic rheumatoid-like syndrome characterized by widespread pain, sleep disruption, fatigue and often psychological distress. 5

The American College of Rheumatology says that fibromyalgia sufferers experience chemical changes within the body affecting communication between the spinal cord and brain. 6 This causes changes in brain chemicals and protein levels, and can cause the body to be extremely sensitive to the “high” setting in the brain’s pain processing center. 7

Fibromyalgia Symptoms

Fibromyalgia symptoms are wide-ranging and may include:

  • Tenderness to touch or pressure points in the joints
  • Morning stiffness
  • Tingling and numbness in the hands and feet
  • Fatigue or sleep problems
  • Thinking and memory problems, also known as “fibro fog”
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Headaches
  • Digestive problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Urinary problems, such as frequency and pain
  • Pelvic and menstrual pain
  • Temporomandibular disorder (TMJ), which is face or jaw pain and includes ringing in the ears

Fibromyalgia symptoms can vary in intensity, and may change over time. Stress often aggravates these symptoms. 8

Fibromyalgia Causes and Diagnosis

Doctors don’t know what causes fibromyalgia. It may be hereditary. Although genes can make people more susceptible to fibromyalgia, genes by themselves do not cause fibromyalgia. 9

There is usually something that triggers the syndrome. Triggers may take the form of spine problems, arthritis, injury, or other physical or emotional stresses. 10

Likewise, there is no single diagnostic test for fibromyalgia, and many illnesses have similar symptoms.

A fibromyalgia diagnosis is achieved through process of elimination. Doctors conduct a complete physical exam, along with a full panel of blood tests, in order to rule out other possibilities.

New Drug Treatments for Fibromyalgia

While there is no cure for fibromyalgia, several drugs have received new indications for fibromyalgia. It is not yet clear why these drugs work or how effective they are.

Some of the newer drugs being used to treat fibromyalgia pain include: Cymbalta, Lyrica and Savella. Cymbalta and Savella are drugs that alter serotonin and norepinephrine, two brain chemicals that control pain levels. 11

Lyrica is in a class of drugs called anticonvulsants or antiseizure medications. 12 Lyrica operates on damaged nerves by reducing the pain signals they send to the brain. 13

Like all medications, these new drugs have side effects that can be serious. Some of the more serious side effects of Lyrica are:

  • Changes in vision, such as blurring
  • Swelling of head, neck or face, including the throat, gums, and tongue
  • Blistering, hives, and itching
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Muscle pain or weakness accompanied by fever
  • Chest pain 14
  • Suicidal behavior and ideation
  • Dizziness and somnolence that can impair the ability to drive

Drug side effects vary, so consult your doctor before taking any medications, and remember to take all medications as your doctor has prescribed.

What You Can Do If You Are Living with Fibromyalgia

If you are living with fibromyalgia, there are things you can do that may help. A healthy lifestyle is one key to improving your quality of life. This includes: eating a balanced diet, maintaining a proper weight, establishing regular sleep patterns, utilizing relaxation techniques, and regularly engaging in low-impact exercises such as walking or swimming.
You may also need to make work changes that accommodate your physical limitations. Additionally, joining a support group or taking up a hobby can help relieve feelings of isolation or anxiety.

The most important thing you can do to help yourself is to stay informed about fibromyalgia and the medications used to treat it.

  1. National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association. Fibromyalgia Fact Sheet. (2014). http://www.fmcpaware.org/fibromyalgia/fm-fact-sheet.html. Accessed February 6, 2015. 

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Types of Arthritis, Fibromyalgia. (2015, January 12). http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/fibromyalgia.htm. Accessed February 6, 2015. 

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Types of Arthritis, Fibromyalgia. (2015, January 12). http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/fibromyalgia.htm. Accessed February 6, 2015. 

  4. WebMD. Fibromyalgia Symptoms. (2015). http://www.webmd.com/fibromyalgia/guide/fibromyalgia-symptoms?page=3. Accessed February 6, 2015. 

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Types of Arthritis, Fibromyalgia. (2015, January 12). http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/fibromyalgia.htm. Accessed February 6, 2015. 

  6. American College of Rheumatology. Fibromyalgia Patient Fact Sheet. (2013). http://www.rheumatology.org/Practice/Clinical/Patients/Diseases_And_Conditions/Fibromyalgia/. Accessed February 6, 2015. 

  7. American College of Rheumatology. Fibromyalgia Patient Fact Sheet. (2013). http://www.rheumatology.org/Practice/Clinical/Patients/Diseases_And_Conditions/Fibromyalgia/. Accessed February 6, 2015. 

  8. American College of Rheumatology. Fibromyalgia Patient Fact Sheet. (2013). http://www.rheumatology.org/Practice/Clinical/Patients/Diseases_And_Conditions/Fibromyalgia/. Accessed February 6, 2015. 

  9. American College of Rheumatology. Fibromyalgia Patient Fact Sheet. (2013). http://www.rheumatology.org/Practice/Clinical/Patients/Diseases_And_Conditions/Fibromyalgia/. Accessed February 6, 2015. 

  10. American College of Rheumatology. Fibromyalgia Patient Fact Sheet. (2013). http://www.rheumatology.org/Practice/Clinical/Patients/Diseases_And_Conditions/Fibromyalgia/. Accessed February 6, 2015. 

  11. American College of Rheumatology. Fibromyalgia Patient Fact Sheet. (2013). http://www.rheumatology.org/Practice/Clinical/Patients/Diseases_And_Conditions/Fibromyalgia/. Accessed February 6, 2015. 

  12. National Institutes of Health. Pregabalin. (2009, September 1). http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/a605045.html. Accessed February 6, 2015. 

  13. National Institutes of Health. Pregabalin. (2009, September 1). http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/a605045.html. Accessed February 6, 2015. 

  14. National Institutes of Health. Pregabalin. (2009, September 1). http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/a605045.html. Accessed February 7, 2015.