What is fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a common condition that causes widespread stiffness, aches and pain in muscles throughout the body. It can also cause extreme tiredness, which can interfere with carrying out normal activities. In some people the symptoms may come and go, while others experience pain every day.

Causes

The exact cause of fibromyalgia is not known. It can sometimes begin after physical trauma, such as a car accident or surgery, or after having an infection, depression or experiencing severe stress. It is thought that these events change the way your body's nerves interpret pain, which cause it to be highly sensitive, even to touch and movement.

In some people the symptoms of fibromyalgia can be made worse by:

  • Changes in the weather;
  • Stress, and;
  • Too much or too little exercise.

Stress

The word ‘stress’ can have a variety of meanings, but generally describes the physical and mental responses of the body to a demand placed upon it. Often used to describe conditions where the demand is high or unable to be resolved and creates anxiety and tension.

Risk factors

Fibromyalgia can affect all types of people, but women between 30 and 60 years of age are the most likely to develop the condition. Fibromyalgia is also more common in people who have a family member with the condition, or have conditions such as osteoarthritisrheumatoid arthritis, or lupus.

Signs and symptoms

The signs and symptoms of fibromyalgia vary from person to person. The most common symptoms are widespread stiffness, aches and pains in your muscles, especially in the back, neck and shoulders. These aches and pains can be mild to severe and usually last for three months or more. If you have fibromyalgia, you may have certain areas on your body that are very tender. These spots are called 'tender points' and although they can occur anywhere, they typically appear in 18 places on the body.

The 18 tender points associated with fibromyalgia. 

If you have fibromyalgia you may also experience:

  • Muscle stiffness;
  • Extreme tiredness;
  • Increased sensitivity to pain;
  • Problems with your memory and trouble concentrating;
  • Trouble sleeping and feeling of tiredness after waking up, and;
  • Depression or anxiety.

In some people, the symptoms of fibromyalgia may come and go, while others experience pain every day.

Anxiety

A feeling of tension, nervousness and dread about future events. It can trigger physical symptoms such as a rapid pulse or breathing difficulties.

Methods for diagnosis

There is no specific test that can be used to identify fibromyalgia. Your doctor will usually make a diagnosis based on your symptoms and by assessing if you have pain in the 18 'tender spots'.

Your doctor may perform some tests, such as blood tests or X-rays, to see if other conditions could be causing your symptoms. Fibromyalgia is usually diagnosed after other likely conditions have been excluded and symptoms have lasted longer than three months.

X-rays

A scan that uses ionising radiation beams to create an image of the body’s internal structures.

Types of treatment

There is no cure for fibromyalgia. Treatment usually involves a combination of medication and lifestyle changes to help relieve symptoms.

Self care

Self-care treatments are simple things that can be done at home that may help relieve some of your symptoms. They can include:

  • Reducing stress levels by using stress management techniques such as deep breathing and meditation;
  • Setting a regular sleeping pattern and avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol that can cause difficulty sleeping, and;
  • Exercising regularly to help relieve pain and tiredness.

Psychology

A psychologist may be able to help with effective pain management strategies as well as dealing with fibromyalgia related anxiety and depression.

Medications

Depending on your condition, your doctor may prescribe medication to help reduce the pain and fatigue associated with fibromyalgia. Medications are not always effective at relieving symptoms. They are best used in combination with lifestyle changes to help manage the condition in the long term. Some of the common types of medications that are used to treat fibromyalgia include:

  • Antidepressants, such as amitriptyline or dothiepin;
  • Anti-seizure medication, such as pregabalin or gabapentin, and;
  • Pain-relief medication, such as paracetamol or codeine.

Alternative therapies

Some people with fibromyalgia seek out complementary or alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and massage. These therapies may help some people feel relaxed and improve their symptoms. It is best to notify your doctor before you commence complementary or alternative therapies, as these can have an impact on conventional therapies that you might also be taking. 

Acupuncture

A form of complementary therapy that involves fine sterilised needles being inserted into the skin at specific points to treat medical conditions.

Anxiety

A feeling of tension, nervousness and dread about future events. It can trigger physical symptoms such as a rapid pulse or breathing difficulties.

Stress

The word ‘stress’ can have a variety of meanings, but generally describes the physical and mental responses of the body to a demand placed upon it. Often used to describe conditions where the demand is high or unable to be resolved and creates anxiety and tension.

Psychologist

A professional specialising in mental development, diagnoses and management of mental health conditions.

Potential complications

Fibromyalgia does not usually get worse over time, or lead to other conditions or diseases. However, the pain and lack of sleep associated with fibromyalgia can make it hard to function normally and can sometimes lead to anxiety and depression. If you have fibromyalgia, you may also be more likely to develop other health conditions, such as migraines or irritable bowel syndrome.

Anxiety

A feeling of tension, nervousness and dread about future events. It can trigger physical symptoms such as a rapid pulse or breathing difficulties.

Prognosis

Fibromyalgia is a long-term disorder. The pain and tiredness that is associated with the condition can sometimes make it hard to carry out normal daily activities. Although it causes no specific long-term physical damage, the related complications of stress, anxiety and depression can have lasting effects on a person's general wellbeing and health.

Anxiety

A feeling of tension, nervousness and dread about future events. It can trigger physical symptoms such as a rapid pulse or breathing difficulties.

Stress

The word ‘stress’ can have a variety of meanings, but generally describes the physical and mental responses of the body to a demand placed upon it. Often used to describe conditions where the demand is high or unable to be resolved and creates anxiety and tension.

Prevention

There is no known way to prevent fibromyalgia, because the cause of the condition is not fully understood.