Fibromyalgia is a debilitating long-term condition characterised by pervasive and chronic pain, muscle stiffness and fatigue. The word 'fibromyalgia' literally means 'muscle fibre pain' (derived from the Greek words for these) and the condition has been recognised only since 1981, although some practitioners still cast doubt on the existence of the condition. It is also commonly referred to as 'fibromyalgia syndrome' or 'fibromyositis' or by the abbreviations 'FMS' or simply 'FM'.
There is no cure for fibromyalgia as such, however it can be managed by lifestyle changes, including for example getting the right amount of sleep, eating a healthy diet and taking regular physical activity.
The precise cause of the condition is not fully understood – however it is believed to be related to previous injuries or infections, or even specific chemical exposure. It is also considered to be related to stress and may have a genetic component (i.e. inherited). Largely, it is now considered to be a central nervous system issue rather than a peripheral musculature issue.
The precise mechanism is believed to be a form of overrepresentation of normal pain signals by the brain and/or the nerves, thought to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and/or disruption of normal CNS signalling.
People are at higher risk of developing fibromyalgia include…
- Women (although more men are being diagnosed with the condition).
- People in middle age.
- People with a family history of the condition.
- People having some other chronic inflammatory conditions e.g. rheumatoid arthritis.
The main symptoms of fibromyalgia are…
- Chronic pain (often a constant dull aching) and tenderness throughout the body, particularly affecting the bones and muscles.
- Stiffness of muscles.
- Short term memory loss.
- Concentration impairment – 'brain fog'.
- Tingling and numbness in the limbs.
- Muscle cramping.
- Sleep disturbance and/or insomnia.
- Dry eye
- Issues affecting the urinary tract e.g. interstitial cystitis.
Fibromyalgia also has a tendency to flare up after periods when it seems to have gone away. It is thought these flare ups are triggered by a wide range of factors, from hormonal changes to overexertion, stress and illness. Even changes in the weather have been implicated in fibromyalgia flare ups.
Tests / Diagnosis
Diagnosing the condition can be difficult, due to the similarity of symptoms to a range of other conditions, including arthritis and some autoimmune conditions.
There are currently no straightforward tests for the condition, as blood tests and imaging tests will not show any abnormalities.
The current diagnostic process involves assessment of the type of pain over a period of time (generally 3 months or longer) and by how widespread it is in the body – it is generally not classified as fibromyalgia if pain is not present on both sides of the body and if pain only affect the upper or the lower body (above or below the waist).