Fibromyalgia: a disconcerting and painful condition

You have probably heard about fibromyalgia, but you may not know what it is.Fibromyalgia is a long-term (chronic) pain condition that affects 5 million or more Americans age 18 and older. For unknown reasons, most people diagnosed with fibromyalgia are women, although men and boys may also be affected. People with certain disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, may also have fibromyalgia, which can affect the course of their illness and treatment.

Fibromyalgia can greatly affect health, well-being and quality of life.

“People with fibromyalgia suffer from severe, everyday pain that spreads throughout the body,” says Dr. Leslie J. Crofford, a researcher at Vanderbilt University who has the support of the NIH. “His pain is often accompanied by debilitating fatigue, sleep that does not refresh them and problems with thinking and memory.”

Complex diagnosis

People with fibromyalgia often see many doctors before finally receiving a diagnosis. The main symptoms, pain and fatigue, overlap with those of many other conditions, which can complicate the diagnosis.

“To make things more challenging, there are no blood tests or x-rays that are abnormal in people with the disorder,” says Crofford. Without a specific diagnostic test, some doctors may question whether a patient’s pain is real. “Even friends, family and co-workers may have difficulty understanding the person’s symptoms.”

A physician familiar with fibromyalgia can make a diagnosis based on the criteria established by the American College of Rheumatology. The diagnostic symptoms include a history of generalized pain that lasts more than 3 months and other symptoms such as fatigue. When making the diagnosis, doctors consider the number of areas throughout the body where the patient had pain last week and rule out other causes of the disease.

Because it is not completely understood

What causes fibromyalgia is not completely understood. Many factors probably contribute.

“We know that people with fibromyalgia have changes in the communication between the body and the brain,” says Crofford. These changes can lead the brain to interpret certain sensations as painful that may not be annoying for people without this disorder.

Researchers have found several genes that can affect a person’s risk of developing fibromyalgia. Stressful life events can also play a role.

Fibromyalgia is not a progressive disease, so it does not get worse over time and may even improve. It is never fatal and will not damage the joints, muscles or internal organs.


Medications can help alleviate some, but not all, of the symptoms of fibromyalgia. “Pharmacological treatments by themselves do not result in the remission or cure of fibromyalgia,” says Crofford. “We have learned that exercise can work as well or better than medications. In addition, therapies such as tai chi, yoga and cognitive behavior therapy can also help reduce symptoms. “

People with fibromyalgia often have the best results when treated with multiple therapies.

“It is extremely important that health care providers help patients understand fibromyalgia and provide realistic information about treatments, with an emphasis on the use of exercise and other physical therapies along with medications.”

Crofford says. Crofford and his colleagues are exploring whether a treatment called TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) can help people with fibromyalgia to exercise more comfortably and reduce pain. She and other teams funded by the NIH are also looking for fibromyalgia markers in the blood that could ultimately lead to more specific and effective treatments.

If you or someone you know has fibromyalgia, check the “wise options” box for tips on how to reduce your impact.

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