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Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain condition that is defined by widespread musculoskeletal pain and other mental and physical symptoms, such as sleep problems, fatigue, stiffness, and cognitive difficulties. The condition affects millions of individuals worldwide, with about 80% of sufferers being female.
If you’ve been experiencing pain throughout your body along with a myriad of other symptoms, it is possible that you’re suffering from fibromyalgia. Read on to learn more about the ways in which fibromyalgia is identified, diagnosed, and treated.
Though there are many symptoms associated with fibromyalgia, the main symptom of the condition is widespread pain. Unlike many other conditions, which involve isolated bouts of pain in specific parts of the body, the pain associated with fibromyalgia affects both sides of the body, both above and below the waist. Though the pain may wax and wane in intensity, most patients describe the pain as a constant ache. This pain is believed to be the result of repeated nerve stimulation altering the levels of neurotransmitters found in patients’ brains. Pain receptors in the brain appear to become more reactive as well, increasing the body’s response to pain signaling. For fibromyalgia to be diagnosed, a patient will have had to experience this pain for at least three months prior to diagnosis.
Sleep disturbances and fatigue are also commonly associated with fibromyalgia. Though most patients report sleeping for long periods of time, most awaken unrefreshed and struggle with daily fatigue. Some patients are woken up by their pain, whereas others struggle with sleep disorders and other conditions, such as sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome.
Impaired mental functioning, often known colloquially as “fibro fog,” affects many patients as well. Concentration is often impaired; sufferers may have difficulty remembering things.
Many other symptoms are associated with fibromyalgia as well. A vast number of sufferers also struggle with migraines and headaches, temporomandibular joint disorders, anxiety, depression, digestive disorders, and bladder and pelvic problems. A large number of patients report that stress worsens their symptoms and increases their pain. Though these symptoms are also associated with a number of other health conditions, their presence, when coupled with widespread bodily pain, often lead to a fibromyalgia diagnosis.
Causes & Risk Factors
Medical professionals still aren’t certain as to what triggers fibromyalgia. The condition often seems to run in families, leading doctors to believe that there is likely a genetic component involved in the condition. In many cases, something seems to trigger fibromyalgia. Illness, infection, or physical or emotional trauma often seem to precede symptom onset. Those who are female, have a family history of fibromyalgia, or struggle with other conditions, such as lupus or arthritis, are more likely than others to develop fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia often resembles a number of other conditions. Since there is no specific test that can diagnose the condition, diagnosis often involves ruling out other conditions first. Swollen joints, for instance, may indicate that a patient is suffering from rheumatoid arthritis rather than fibromyalgia. Multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and thyroid problems often present with similar symptoms as well. Your doctor may check painful “tender points” on your body and also run a number of other tests, such as general blood work, rheumatoid factor tests, thyroid function tests, x-rays, and other scans to get a better idea of what may be causing your symptoms.
In most cases, fibromyalgia will only be diagnosed if certain criteria are met. Patients generally must be experiencing severe pain in three to six areas of the body or less severe pain in more regions. Patients must have been experiencing such aches and pains at an equal level of intensity for at least three months prior to diagnosis. Finally, no other diagnosable cause for the symptoms must have been found during testing and examination.
Though many symptoms may be a direct result of fibromyalgia, patients often find themselves suffering with a number of associated health problems as well. Your healthcare professional may also diagnose you with mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, or other physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, and sleep apnea during the diagnostic process.
Treatment Options & Symptom Management
Unfortunately there is no cure for fibromyalgia. Treatment generally focuses on alleviating symptoms via medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes. Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, may ease sufferers’ daily pains. Prescription painkillers may also be diagnosed. In some cases, certain antidepressants, muscle relaxants, and anti-seizure medications may be used to reduce pain and fatigue as well.
Different forms of therapy may also be used to help patients better cope with their symptoms. Physical therapy may help some individuals improve their strength and flexibility. Talk therapy and occupational therapy may also be useful in helping individuals better manage difficulties in their work environments and daily lives.
Managing fibromyalgia often requires making a number of positive lifestyle changes. Patients must strive to avoid physical and emotional stress whenever possible. Though patients should strive to live active and engaged lives, many must accept that they need to do less than before in order to feel their best. Gentle exercise, yoga, and meditation are all good ways to manage daily stressors, reducing the risk of stress-related flare-ups. Some patients also find that massage therapy and acupuncture reduce their pain symptoms.
Consistency is crucial to managing fibromyalgia. Patients should strive to sleep enough each night, going to bed and rising at roughly the same time each day. Regular exercise, such as walking, biking, and swimming, are all good ways to ultimately reduce physical pain as well. Eating well and limiting alcohol and caffeine intake are also important ways sufferers can improve their overall well-being. Most importantly, patients should remember live life in moderation. Doing a little activity every day is far better than overdoing things one day and doing nothing the next.
Though fibromyalgia may not yet have a cure, many patients find relief with the right combination of medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes.
If you believe that you or someone you love may be suffering from fibromyalgia, make an appointment with your family physician. Consider writing down pertinent information, such as a detailed list of your symptoms, your medical history, medical problems that run in your family, and the medications that you currently take. Your doctor may refer you to other specialists or perform a number of tests before diagnosing your condition.
Though fibromyalgia can be difficult to live with, the right treatment plan can significantly reduce most patients’ suffering. If you’re experiencing widespread pain and fatigue, make an appointment with your doctor. Receiving a diagnosis is the first step towards a more pain-free life.
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