What is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia (FM) is an increasingly recognized chronic pain illness which is characterized by widespread musculoskeletal aches, pain and stiffness, soft tissue tenderness, general fatigue and sleep disturbances. The most common sites of pain include the neck, back, shoulders, pelvic girdle and hands, but any body part can be involved. Fibromyalgia patients experience a range of symptoms of varying intensities that wax and wane over time.

Who is affected?

It is estimated that approximately 3-6% of the U.S. population has FM. Although a higher percentage of women are affected, it does strike men, women and children of all ages and races.

What are the symptoms?

FM is characterized by the presence of multiple tender points and several other symptoms.

Pain
- The pain of FM is profound, widespread and chronic. It migrates to all parts of the body and varies in intensity. FM pain has been described as deep muscular aching, throbbing, twitching, stabbing and shooting pain. Neurological complaints such as numbness, tingling and burning are often present and add to the discomfort of the patient. The severity of the pain and stiffness is often worse in the morning. Aggravating factors which affect pain include cold/humid weather, non-restorative sleep, physical and mental fatigue, excessive physical activity, physical inactivity, anxiety and stress.

Fatigue
- In today’s world many people complain of fatigue; however, the fatigue of FM is much more than being tired. It is an all-encompassing exhaustion that interferes with even the simplest daily activities. It feels like every drop of energy has been drained from the body, which at times can leave the patient with a limited ability to function both mentally and physically.

Sleep Problems
- Many Many Fibromyalgia patients have an associated sleep disorder which prevents them from getting deep, restful, and restorative sleep. Medical researchers have documented specific and distinctive abnormalities in the stage 4 deep sleep of FM patients. During sleep, individuals with FM are constantly interrupted by bursts of awake-like brain activity, limiting the amount of time they spend in deep sleep.

Other symptoms
- Additional symptoms may include: irritable bowel and bladder, headaches and migraines, restless legs syndrome (periodic limb movement disorder), impaired memory and concentration, skin sensitivities and rashes, dry eyes and mouth, anxiety, depression, ringing in the ears, dizziness, vision problems, raynaud’s syndrome, neurological symptoms and impaired coordination.

How is it diagnosed?

EKG Printout
EKG Printout ca. 2000

Currently there are no laboratory tests available for diagnosing Fibromyalgia. Doctors must rely on patient histories, self-reported symptoms, a physical examination and an accurate manual tender point examination. Proper implementation of the exam determines the presence of multiple tender points at characteristic locations.

It is estimated that it takes an average of five years for a FM patient to get an accurate diagnosis. Many doctors are still not adequately informed or educated about FM. Laboratory tests often prove negative and many FM symptoms overlap with the symptoms of other conditions. Another essential point that must be considered is that the presence of other diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, does not rule out a FM diagnosis. Fibromyalgia is not a diagnosis of exclusion and must be diagnosed by its own characteristic features.

To receive a diagnosis of FM, the patient must meet the following diagnostic criteria:

  • Widespread pain in all four quadrants of the body for a minimum duration of three months
  • Tenderness or pain in at least 11 of the 18 specified tender points when pressure is applied (see image to the right)

What causes FM?

While the underlying cause or causes of FM still remain a mystery, new research findings continue to bring us closer to understanding the basic mechanisms of Fibromyalgia. Most researchers agree that FM is a disorder of central processing with neuroendocrine/neurotransmitter dysregulation. The FM patient experiences pain amplification due to abnormal sensory processing in the central nervous system. An increasing number of scientific studies now show multiple physiological abnormalities in the FM patient, including:

  • increased levels of substance P in the spinal cord
  • low levels of blood flow to the thalamus region of the brain
  • HPA axis hypofunction
  • low levels of serotonin and tryptophan
  • abnormalities in cytokine function

Recent studies show that genetic factors may predispose individuals to a genetic susceptibility to FM. For some, the onset of FM is slow; however, in a large percentage of patients the onset is triggered by an illness or injury that causes trauma to the body. These events may act to incite an undetected physiological problem already present.

How is FM treated?

One of the most important factors in improving the symptoms of FM is for the patient to recognize the need for lifestyle adaptation. Most people are resistant to change because it implies adjustment, discomfort and effort. However, in the case of FM, change can bring about recognizable improvement in function and quality of life. Becoming educated about FM gives the patient more potential for improvement.

Conventional medical intervention may be only part of a potential treatment program. Alternative treatments, nutrition, relaxation techniques and exercise play an important role in FM treatment as well. Each patient should, along with the healthcare practitioner, establish a multifaceted and individualized approach that works for them.

Pain Management
- Over-the-counter pain medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, may be helpful in relieving pain. The physician may decide to prescribe one of the newer non-narcotic pain relievers (e.g. tramadol) or low doses of antidepressants (e.g. tricyclic antidepressants, serotonin reuptake inhibitors) or benzodiazepines. Patients must remember that antidepressants are “serotonin builders” and can be prescribed at low levels to help improve sleep and relieve pain. If the patient is experiencing depression, higher levels of these or other medications may need to be prescribed. Another beneficial pain therapy, which works well on localized areas of pain, is lidocaine injections into the patient’s tender points. An important aspect of pain management is a regular program of gentle exercise and stretching, which helps maintain muscle tone and reduces pain and stiffness.

Sleep Management
- Improved sleep can be obtained by implementing a healthy sleep regimen, which includes going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, making sure that the sleeping environment is conducive to sleep (i.e. quiet, free from distractions, a comfortable room temperature, a supportive bed), avoiding caffeine, sugar and alcohol before bed, doing some type of light exercise during the day, avoiding eating immediately before bedtime and practicing relaxation exercises as you fall to sleep. When necessary, there are new sleep medications that can be prescribed, some of which can be especially helpful if the patient’s sleep is disturbed by restless legs or periodic limb movement disorder.

Other Treatments
- Complementary therapies can be very beneficial. These include: physical therapy, therapeutic massage, myofascial release therapy, water therapy, light aerobics, acupressure, application of heat or cold, acupuncture, yoga, relaxation exercises, breathing techniques, aromatherapy, cognitive therapy, biofeedback, herbs, nutritional supplements, and osteopathic or chiropractic manipulation.