What is fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a poorly understood disorder. It is a chronic syndrome that causes a stiff, burning pain in or near the joints, not dissimilar to the pain of arthritis. Unlike arthritis, however, the joints are not deformed or damaged. Most people with fibromyalgia complain of the pain commencing in one area of the body, then radiating outwards. Cold weather, physical exertion, insomnia and stress can make the pain worse. As many as one in 50 people may experience fibromyalgia during their lifetime, with the large majority of sufferers being women.

Many people with fibromyalgia also experience secondary symptoms, including chronic fatigue, depression and migraine headaches. Some people also complain of bladder and menstrual problems.

Is fibromyalgia a physical condition or a psychological one?

Fibromylagia causes real pains and stiffness but the condition is poorly understood. There are no specific abnormal test results to assist in the diagnosis and the condition does not cause destruction or damage to the joints. The medical consensus largely agrees that fibromylagia is idiopathic; that is, an illness without obvious cause.

Some studies have suggested that fibromyalgia is a dysfunctional disorder, caused by the body reacting to stress. These studies focus on issues such as personal histories of patients and genetic factors. It seems certain that there is a greater chance of developing fibromyalgia if someone in your close family, especially a parent or a child, already has the illness.

Other research suggests that a history of sleep disturbance or the presence of certain brain chemical abnormalities may have a role to play in causing fibromyalgia. Whatever the cause or causes, what is certain is that the illness causes significant physical discomfort.

What causes fibromyalgia?

The precise cause of fibromyalgia is unknown, but research is ongoing. The higher incidence of stress and depression among sufferers has been interpreted by some experts as a psychosomatic cause of the disease, but others assert that these mood disorders may actually occur as a result of being in significant, regular pain.

It may be that there are many causes of the illness, including genetic factors, brain chemical abnormalities, insomnia and muscular abnormalities. A combination of some or all of these factors may instigate the illness. Many other complaints present similar symptoms to fibromyalgia, which makes it very difficult to diagnose.

Fibromyalgia may also occur as the result of certain other illnesses and complaints. Neck injuries, Ankylosing Spondylitis and some surgical procedures may precipitate the condition.

How can fibromyalgia be treated?

In many cases, the symptoms can be managed effectively, although there is no particular curative treatment for fibromyalgia. Some medications can improve sleeping patterns and reduce pain levels, but for the most part, recovery or part-recovery depends upon the patient's own lifestyle.

Pursuing a graded exercise regimen and practising relaxation techniques are known to help in reducing pain levels. Many people with fibromyalgia avoid exercise as it causes pain, but fibromyalgia is a muscular complaint, and exercising those muscles is the only definite way to improve the condition.

It is crucial that people with fibromyalgia do not fall into habits of self-dosing; for example, taking pills or alcohol to aid sleeping, and taking caffeine in significant amounts to counteract fatigue. Toxins are not likely to improve the condition at all. Often the condition is a lifelong one, but it can be managed, and if a reduction in levels of pain and fatigue are achieved, it need not be debilitating.

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