Fibromyalgia is a poorly understood and life-altering illness that can be difficult to diagnose and treat. One of the biggest obstacles for patients is that they do not “look sick” and many diagnostic tests (including imaging or laboratory values) give normal results. From outward appearances, patients often look perfectly fine. Diagnosis is primarily based on the patient history, which means that diagnosis can be subjective and difficult to prove. Fortunately, the existence of the disease has been proven with brain scans.
Fibromyalgia causes chronic pain, lack of sleep, low energy and a decreased ability to function day to day. Unlike many causes of pain, fibromyalgia pain is not limited to a single area of the body. Instead, the patient has a heightened sensitivity to pain throughout multiple “tender points”. They may also have migraines and suffer from depression and anxiety.
Patients with fibromyalgia may not feel up to participating in hobbies, or “having fun” with their loved ones. In combination with a decreased ability to perform day to day tasks, this can leave patients isolated and often misunderstood by family members and friends. It can be helpful to find a support group, although they are not available in all areas. National Fibromyalgia Association, FM and chronic pain (fmaware.org)
Management of fibromyalgia is most successful when the patient partners with a healthcare provider who is able to recognize the seriousness of the disease, treat the symptoms and help the patient learn to manage remaining issues. Friends and family members can help by recognizing that fibromyalgia is just as debilitating as other, more easily visible, diseases.
There is no cure for fibromyalgia. Management of the disease is most successful when patients are willing to participate in a multidisciplinary approach including medication, exercise, physical therapy, pain psychology and pain management. Both the mental and physical aspects of the disease should be addressed.
Risk factors for fibromyalgia include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), family history, car accidents, past trauma and obesity. Fibromyalgia is twice as common among women as it is among men. It is frequently associated with arthritis.