Is Fibromyalgia Real or Imagined?

In simple terms, fibromyalgia is widespread (all over the body) muscular pain with stiffness and localized tenderness at different points on the body.

In broader detail, fibromyalgia is a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal or muscular pain and accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory, and mood problems. Many times, diagnosis for this condition is difficult because its most prominent symptoms (widespread pain and chronic fatigue) do occur with other conditions.

Hence, the question of whether fibromyalgia is real or imagined seems to hold some water, especially as the cause is unknown and doctors have a hard time understanding or appreciating the suffering of patients.

However, fibromyalgia is a real medical condition, affecting an estimated 10 million Americans. Fibromyalgia is a disease that can affect anyone, children and adults inclusive. However, there are more adults, especially women diagnosed with fibromyalgia every year.

People living with fibromyalgia often experience fatigue and altered sleep, memory, and mood issues. In some cases, these symptoms interfere with a patient’s ability to enjoy life or carry out simple daily tasks. Working with a doctor who understands the condition is believed to be the best way to get effective therapy. 

In general, keeping the condition under control involves medication, talk therapy, and stress reduction. 

History of Fibromyalgia

The name fibromyalgia originated from the Latin word “fibro” (tissue) and the Greek terms “myo” and “algia”, meaning muscle and pain, respectively.

Contrary to some notions that fibromyalgia is a new disorder, it has been in existence for several centuries. At some point, the condition was thought to be a mental disorder. Later in the early 1800s, it was widely considered to be a rheumatic disorder characterized by stiffness, pain, fatigue, and insomnia. 

In the early 1820s, fibromyalgia tender points were discovered. At the time, the condition was called fibrositis, as many doctors believed the pain was caused by localized inflammation at the sites of pain. However, in 1976, it was renamed to what we know it by today, fibromyalgia.

It wasn’t until 2007 that the first prescription medication to treat fibromyalgia was made available.

Symptoms of Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is generally classified as an arthritic condition, however, it is not a type of arthritis. This is because arthritis causes inflammation, affecting the joints in the body. Fibromyalgia, on the other hand, is not marked by observable inflammation, plus, it has no detrimental effect on muscle tissues or body joints. 

The main symptoms of fibromyalgia are: 

  • Widespread pain can be triggered by the slightest touch. Patients feel this pain throughout the entire body.
  • Chronic fatigue and incessant tiredness. Simple everyday activities can be very exhausting.
  • Inability to sleep properly, including waking up and not feeling refreshed
  • “Fibro fog”, known as the inability to focus. Problems with concentration, thinking, and memory
  • Depression and anxiety 
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Abdominal pains 
  • Stiffness all over the body

Other symptoms of fibromyalgia include:

  • Tingling or numbness in hands and feet
  • Temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ): this is a pain localized in the face or jaw, including disorders of the jaw.
  • Digestive problems, including bloating, constipation, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Diagnosis of Fibromyalgia

The bad news is that fibromyalgia is difficult to diagnose. The good news is that the condition can be diagnosed. 

Diagnosing fibromyalgia can prove to be quite tricky, mostly for doctors who are not experienced in handling the condition. Unfortunately, there is currently no diagnostic test to confirm fibromyalgia. As a result, diagnosis of the condition typically involves ruling out other conditions.

This is because the presence of widespread pain, sleep problems, and chronic fatigue is common in other conditions and does not automatically mean you have fibromyalgia. After completing several tests with no diagnosis, a doctor who is not knowledgeable enough about the condition may wrongly dismiss your symptoms as imaginary or attribute them to depression, stress, or anxiety.

Wondering why it is so hard to make a diagnosis of the condition?

Here’s why: a doctor can only complete a diagnosis if the symptoms you’re experiencing match the criteria established in the 2019 International Diagnostic Criteria. 

Despite being tricky, diagnosis is possible, but it might take longer than expected. For that reason, experts advise that people suffering from fibromyalgia are better off consulting a doctor who is experienced in rheumatology.

A rheumatologist is your best bet when it comes to treating conditions like arthritis, joint pain, as well conditions that cause pains in the tissues and muscles.

Other Important Facts About Diagnosing Fibromyalgia

People living with fibromyalgia may have up to 18 tender points all over their body, which are painful when touched or pressed. 

However, during fibromyalgia diagnosis, doctors aren’t required to conduct a tender points exam, but your doctor may check those points during a physical examination.

In 1990, the American College of Rheumatology established the guidelines for diagnosing fibromyalgia. In 2019, the International Diagnostic Criteria for fibromyalgia was updated to include the following:

  • To be diagnosed with fibromyalgia, the patient in question must have a history of widespread pain and other symptoms in 6 of 9 general areas, lasting for 3 months or longer.
  • Moderate sleep disturbance, and 
  • Fatigue

Regarding diagnosis of fibromyalgia, doctors often use the patient’s history, physical examination, X-rays, and blood work to diagnose the condition.

Risk Factors for Fibromyalgia

Studies show that fibromyalgia can be triggered by stressful events, including physical stress and emotional/psychological stress. 

Other possible triggers for fibromyalgia include:

Injury: Studies have shown that an injury to the body or viral infection can trigger the condition. Others include car accidents, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), etc. 

Age: Although the disorder affects anyone, regardless of age, most people are diagnosed with fibromyalgia during middle age. Also, people are more likely to have the condition as they get older.

Sex: It is widely believed that women are twice more likely to have fibromyalgia than men. In fact, studies have confirmed the disproportionate occurrence of the condition in both genders, with more women having the condition. 

Lupus or Rheumatoid Arthritis: Patients living with lupus or rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are more likely to develop fibromyalgia.

It should be noted that several other factors have been associated with the onset of fibromyalgia, but due to the lack of substantive medical evidence, more research is needed to confirm them. These other “possible risk factors” include: 

  • Repetitive injuries from stress on a joint. A common example is frequent knee bending
  • Diseases, such as viral infections
  • Family history
  • Obesity

What Are the Treatments for Fibromyalgia?

The treatment of fibromyalgia focuses on relieving pain, fatigue, depression, and other symptoms that come with the condition. As of today, there are three prescription medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of pain symptoms in fibromyalgia. These are:

  • Duloxetine (Cymbalta)
  • Milnacipran (Savella)
  • Pregabalin (Lyrica)

Some patients may not even need prescription medication, as common over-the-counter analgesics like ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help them manage pain. Other alternative therapies include massage, mild exercise, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), chiropractic care, and acupuncture. 

These medications can help with reducing inflammation, minimizing muscular aches, and improving sleep quality. Besides pain relievers, discussed below are other therapies that are helpful in treating pain in fibromyalgia and improve your quality of life.

Antidepressants

Antidepressants have been shown to be helpful in easing pain and improving fatigue. However, if you’re looking to explore this option for treatment, be sure to first discuss the implications with your doctor before going for it. 

Past clinical studies have shown that antidepressants can have an unpleasant impact on some people. This includes nausea, weight gain, and loss of sexual desire.

Anticonvulsants

Another alternative remedy for pain relief are seizure medications. Luckily, pregabalin (Lyrica), which is the first FDA-approved anti-seizure medication, can be used for treating fibromyalgia. Another option is gabapentin, to help reduce nerve pain. 

However, it is important to note that these medications may come with side effects like dizziness, weight gain, swelling, and dry mouth. 

Acupuncture

Research shows that acupuncture can help reduce bodily pain as well as enhance stress management therapies. Studies have also found out that patients can also try acupuncture for pain relief in fibromyalgia. Acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles through the skin at strategic points on the body. 

It is a key component of ancient/traditional Chinese medicine. People who have used acupuncture attest to its impact on pain treatment. It is also useful for promoting natural self-healing, encouraging blood flow changes, changing the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, and a variety of other health conditions. 

It is also important to note that acupuncture comes with some risks, including soreness, minor bleeding, infections, and bruising, especially after the treatment. Therefore, you want to make sure your acupuncturist is a licensed practitioner to decrease the associated risks. And for people who cannot tolerate the needles, acupressure is usually suggested. 

Yoga

Generally, taking yoga classes can help anyone increase muscle strength, improve meditation, and learn different relaxation techniques. If you’re living with fibromyalgia, participating in classes can help to improve your mood and relieve you of pain and fatigue. These findings are research-based and possible yoga classes include: 

  • Gentle poses
  • Meditation
  • Breathing exercises
  • Group discussions

But be sure to inform your instructor about your condition. It will enable them to adjust the poses to offer you the most benefits to your body. 

Physical Therapy

The aim of physical therapies is to improve patients’ range of motion and strengthen the muscles. It is another effective therapy that can help improve fibromyalgia pain symptoms. The therapist will tailor the physical therapy program to help the patient manage the specific symptoms they feel.

Therapies for Treating Fibromyalgia Fatigue

People affected by fibromyalgia often have to deal with fatigue, especially in the morning. They wake up in the morning feeling tired all the despite sleeping through the night. 

Here are known options for treating fibromyalgia fatigue:

Vitamin D

Research has revealed that taking vitamin D supplements can help improve the quality of life of people with fibromyalgia, as they experience less fatigue. often have low levels of vitamin D. 

To ensure you take an appropriate amount of vitamin D supplements, it is advisable to consult your doctor, as too much can be toxic.

Mild Exercise

By engaging in mind exercises regularly, people with fibromyalgia can also deal with chronic fatigue and improve their energy levels. Exercise also increases the production of endorphins in the brain, as well as helps you have better sleep and reduces depression. 

Suggested physical activities for people with fibromyalgia include simple exercises like walking, biking, and swimming. It’s important to note that the widespread pain can be a challenge in the beginning. 

Therefore, it’s advisable to start slow and increase gradually, but most importantly, not to go beyond your threshold. Exercise has consistently proven to be one of the most effective treatments for improving fibromyalgia fatigue. 

Additional Alternative Therapies for Fibromyalgia

Other treatments to ease fibromyalgia symptoms include: .

Medical Marijuana

A particular study found that people with fibromyalgia can take medicinal marijuana to ease the symptoms of pain and stiffness in fibromyalgia. Other benefits of administering medical cannabis to fibromyalgia patients are better relaxation, better sleep, improved mental health, and overall feelings of well-being. 

The known side effects of using medical marijuana for fibromyalgia include unfocused judgment and reduced concentration. But more research is needed to fully explore its benefits and understand the long-term side effects.

Tai Chi

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese medical remedy that helps to improve body balance. You move your body slowly and gently through a series of poses. The therapy is potentially effective for easing fibromyalgia symptoms.

Research has shown that tai chi can help people with fibromyalgia improve muscle strength, balance, and stamina. The caveat is that if it is overdone, it can cause sore muscles or sprains. 

Biofeedback

Biofeedback involves learning how to control your body functions. It’s been suggested as a way of reducing muscle tension and pain in fibromyalgia. You might also need to consult your doctor to ascertain if this is a good option for you. The great aspect of biofeedback is that there are no side effects. However, you may feel overwhelmed or exhausted after a session.

Massage Therapy

Massage therapy can generally help in relaxing the muscles, improving the range of motion, and reducing stress and anxiety. People suffering fibromyalgia can discuss with their massage therapist to tailor the therapy to address the specific symptoms they’re feeling. 

Fibromyalgia is Real, But You can Find Relief

More research is currently ongoing to develop better diagnostic procedures and find lasting therapies for fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is real. In fact, the condition can be life-altering even though it is not life-threatening. 

If you believe you are experiencing symptoms of the condition, do not hesitate to speak with a doctor who understands your pain.. Seek medical attention if you experience chronic fatigue and widespread pain that lasts beyond three months.

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