What is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. Fibromyalgia amplifies painful sensations by affecting the way your brain and spinal cord process painful and nonpainful signals. This means something that should not be painful at all can be extremely painful and pain may continue for longer than it normally would. It can have a significant impact on quality of life and participation in normal daily work and social activities, therefore making fibromyalgia treatment important.

The name fibromyalgia is made up from “fibro” for fibrous tissues such as tendons and ligaments; “my” indicating muscles; and “algia” meaning pain.

Who does it affect?

Anyone can develop fibromyalgia, although it affects around seven times as many women as men. The condition typically develops between the ages of 30 and 50, but can occur in people of any age, including children and the elderly.

It’s not clear exactly how many people are affected by fibromyalgia, although research has suggested it could be a relatively common condition. Some estimates suggest nearly 1 in 20 people may be affected by fibromyalgia to some degree.

What are the causes of fibromyalgia?

It is not clear why people develop fibromyalgia as there is no exact cause, however there are numerous factors that can be involved which include:

  • Abnormal pain messages
  • Genetics
  • Possible triggers such as a serious injury (car accident), an infection (Lyme disease), a major operation or an emotional traumatic event (armed forces).
  • Associated conditions – rheumatic conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and temporomandibular disorder (TMD).

What are the typical symptoms of fibromyalgia?

Symptoms of Fibromyalgia vary widely, so everyone’s journey is unique, however, common symptoms include:

  • widespread pain, hypersensitivity and unpredictable pains
  • fatigue and difficulty sleeping
  • muscle stiffness and tenderness
  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • pins and needles/electric shock sensations
  • hypersensitivity to other stimuli (smell, light and taste)
  • dry mouth
  • hot sweats
  • problems with mental processes i.e. speech, memory and concentration (fibrofog)

Fibromyalgia also rarely occurs alone and is often associated with the development of other conditions such as IBS, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression/anxiety, carpal tunnel syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis.

How can I help myself?

Unfortunately, Fibromyalgia is not a condition that has any known cure, and so the focus turns to learning to live well with the condition, which can be done! Fibromyalgia treatment often involves the following:

  1. Identify any psychological triggers that can lead to flare ups (for example by using a diary to track symptoms and recent events), then try to manage these triggers where possible. Discussions with colleagues, friends and family may help to manage triggers by agreeing changes or by providing solutions you may not have thought of alone.
  2. Use relaxation and mindfulness practices to calm your nervous system. There are some great apps available, such as Calm or Headspace that can help by providing guided relaxation and mindfulness.
  3. Physiotherapy – health education; resistance and aerobic exercises; manual therapies such as massage/ mobilisations and acupuncture are all different modalities that contribute to improving the quality of life of individuals with fibromyalgia.
  4. Gradually increase activity levels – Yoga, Pilates, swimming and brisk walking are all great ways to do this, but if none of these take your fancy, just do something that you enjoy that gets your heart racing! Ultimately it is most important to engage in activities that you value and that give you a sense of enjoyment. Try to work at a level that challenges your symptoms and may increase them slightly, but not at a level where your symptoms flare up for days. Using a diary can help to know what the right level is for you, and eventually that level will change as you get fitter and improve your exercise tolerance. By improving your exercise tolerance, your body’s pain thresholds will increase and so you will not be affected as easily by day-to-day activities, and you will be able to engage in more of your valued activities.

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