Fibromyalgia: A World of Pain

You get used to it. You’re in a world of pain. You’re crawling out of your skin. You’re not yourself anymore. You pop pills and it still doesn’t get better, except perhaps for short intervals when it “kind of” goes away. But then, it’s back with a vengeance. Fibromyalgia.

credit Melanie Hall

Approximately 3.7 million people, mostly women between the ages of 20 and 50, are afflicted with fibromyalgia. Some research labels it as a disease, some as a disorder. The distinction between a disease and a disorder is unclear, confusing, and contradictory. A general definition of a disorder is “any abnormality of function.” A disease has been defined as “an illness with a recognizable set of signs and symptoms.” I’m not sure this matters to the sufferer. Pain is pain, and this one is a whopper. It is chronic, pervasive, persistent, and often the pain is extreme.

Fibromyalgia is characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, and multiple tender points. It does not cause deformities or loss of function of the joints like arthritis; however, at times it is difficult to differentiate between the two. It is considered a form of soft tissue rheumatism affecting the muscles and their attachment to bones.

Some doctors believe fibromyalgia is an autoimmune disease, a condition that occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissue. Evidence indicates that genetic factors may play a role, and there are other theories that point to psychological stress or biochemical abnormalities in the central nervous system. Research suggests that there are brain anomalies in people suffering from fibromyalgia, possibly as a result of childhood or prolonged severe stress. Bottom line is, there’s not enough evidence to determine the actual cause(s) of fibromyalgia.

The many symptoms of fibromyalgia vary from person to person. Deep muscle pain and soreness, skin sensitivity, morning stiffness, flu-like aching, weakness in the limbs, dizziness, tingling or numbness in the hands and feet, gastrointestinal problems including irritable bowel syndrome, prolonged spasms of the muscles, nerve pain, restless leg syndrome, and migraine headaches are all typical. Often pain is felt in the legs, neck, and head, but widespread pain affecting all four quadrants of the body is characteristic.

People with fibromyalgia frequently experience other stress-related disorders at the same time, such as depression and chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia, difficulty thinking clearly, difficulty performing everyday tasks. It is difficult to diagnose because many of the symptoms mimic those of other disorders. According to the American College of Rheumatology, two criteria determine the diagnosis of fibromyalgia: widespread pain that lasts for at least three months and pain identified in 11 of the 18 specified tender points.

To date, there is no cure for this condition. Numerous medications have been tested and/or used to treat it, and some have been effective, including anti-depressants, muscle relaxants, and anti-seizure medications. Unfortunately, the side effects of these can outweigh the benefits. The anti-inflammatory drugs typically used for arthritis are of little benefit for those with fibromyalgia. Acetaminophen is sometimes helpful.

Many studies have indicated that exercise is one of the most effective treatments in managing fibromyalgia. In particular, there is strong evidence that for some people cardiovascular exercise and/or swimming is effective. Physical activity reduces stress and increase a sense of well- being, which in turn improves general health, and it can diminish pain and fatigue.

Biofeedback and meditation are two methods to consider for stress reduction. Massage therapy may not work because some people suffering from fibromyalgia, experience extreme skin sensitivity, which makes it unbearable.

Doctors recommend a combination of all three methods: exercise, medication, and stress reduction.

Since symptoms of fibromyalgia constantly affect your life, this major upheaval is traumatic. Acceptance of the changes is difficult, but will make it easier to cope. In time, most people get used to living with pain. It is important to go about your daily schedule as best you can. It is equally important to rest and relax when time allows.

Finding ways to manage pain is essential for the sufferer. Support from family is a source of healing and strength. Human touch, hugs, and affection from loved ones play an important part in one’s good health. There are support groups in many communities as well as online.

Diverting attention away from the pain and onto soothing and nurturing activities such as art or music is another way to cope and heal. Pets have also been known to be healers for many people. They are comforting, loving, and fun. Laughter has been proven to diminish suffering.

The most essential ingredient is having a positive attitude. Studies have shown that a positive outlook helps with stress management and can improve your health. Meanwhile, research on fibromyalgia is constantly being done. There is hope!