Fibromyalgia is a complex chronic pain illness that is recognized by the American Medical Association, the National Institutes of Health and the American College of Rheumatology. FM experts estimate that approximately 5% of the population worldwide suffer with FM. While it is most common in women, the illness strikes men, women and children of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. For those with severe symptoms, FM can be extremely debilitating and interfere with even routine daily activities.
The FM diagnostic criteria, established by the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) in 1990, include a history of widespread pain in all four quadrants of the body for a minimum duration of three months, and pain in at least 11 of 18 designated tender points when a specified amount of pressure is applied.
Since people with FM tend to look healthy and conventional tests are typically normal, a physician knowledgeable about the illness is necessary to make a diagnosis.
Physicians should rule out other causes of the symptoms before making a diagnosis of fibromyalgia.
Although chronic, widespread body pain is the primary symptom of fibromyalgia, a variety of other symptoms are common in FM patients. Symptoms frequently include moderate to severe fatigue; problems with cognitive functioning, memory and concentration; irritable bowel; headaches and migraines; and neurological symptoms such as dizziness, vision problems, numbness, noise sensitivity, or impaired coordination.
Research has documented particular abnormalities that frequently occur in the deep stages of sleep in FM patients, preventing them from achieving restful, restorative sleep.
Although researchers have uncovered a number of possible contributing factors, the cause of FM remains a mystery.
Fibromyalgia often occurs following a physical trauma–such as an acute illness or injury–which may act as a “trigger” in the development of the disorder.
Recent research has suggested a genetic component. The illness is often seen in families, among siblings or mothers and their children.
Increasing attention is being devoted to the central nervous system as the underlying mechanism of FM. Recent studies have suggested that FM patients have a generalized disturbance in pain processing that results in “pain amplification”–that is, FM patients experience pain in response to stimuli that would not ordinarily be painful in healthy people.
Since there is no known cure for FM, treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and improving function.
A variety of prescription medications are often used to reduce pain levels and improve sleep.
Alternative therapies such as massage, myofascial release, acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal supplements and yoga can be effective tools in managing FM symptoms.
One of the most important factors in successfully managing FM is recognizing the need for lifestyle changes. Increasing rest, pacing activities carefully, reducing stress, practicing relaxation and improving nutrition can help minimize symptoms and improve quality of life.
The course of the illness varies greatly. While symptoms tend to wax and wane, most FM patients do tend to improve over time.
Fibromyalgia sufferers should be reassured that although the condition is painful, it does not damage tissues; appropriate treatment and lifestyle changes can help patients manage the illness successfully.
Better ways to diagnose and treat FM are on the horizon, and increased information and awareness are helping to improve the quality of life for people with FM.