Imagine having intense, numbing pain surge through your body—the kind that makes your muscles feel tender to the touch. You're easily fatigued, have difficulty concentrating and can't fall (or stay) asleep. You're also depressed and incredibly sore, feeling like your muscles are being stabbed with knives. This is the reality for someone with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder characterised by these very symptoms.
Aside from the debilitating pain and mental anguish fibromyalgia causes, the trouble with the condition is that it's widely misunderstood—there are no visible signs and symptoms, which makes it difficult to verbalize—or even prove—to others. And then there's the rub: According to Sara Twogood, assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Keck Medicine of USC, specialists are unsure what the underlying cause of fibromyalgia is—the tip of the iceberg for those feeling misunderstood or even accused of manifesting the symptoms "in their head." However, in the past few decades, researchers have increased their efforts to further examine the causes behind the condition to better help patients formulate a treatment plan.
To learn a bit more about this painful condition ourselves and to find out which treatment methods have proven to be the most effective, we spoke with Twogood and Jessica A. Shepherd, MD, director of minimally invasive gynecology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and SweetSpot Labs Expert. Below, their answers.
Tell Us More About the Condition
"In fibromyalgia patients, the pain is bilateral and occurs on both sides of the body," Twogood says. "Historically, doctors have used 18 specific tender points distributed throughout the body to help aid in diagnosis." These trigger points, located at the back of the neck, elbows, front of the neck, hips, lower back, upper back, knees, shoulders and chest help determine the severity of a patient's symptoms. However, localised muscle aches aren't the sole cause of the widespread pain—patients with fibromyalgia have malfunctions in their nervous systems, meaning that the levels of neurotransmitters that facilitate pain transmission are elevated in the cerebrospinal fluid and brain. Thus, pain is amplified and felt at a much stronger rate than the average person.
Who is Most Susceptible?
Twogood says, "Fibromyalgia is more common in women and is thought to be the most common cause of generalised pain in women aged 20 to 55 years old. Women with fibromyalgia often have other conditions such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), migraine headaches, arthritis, chronic pelvic pain or interstitial cystitis." In the case of IBS and pelvic pain, 40% to 70% of patients experience severe, shooting abdominal pain, bloating and gas. Fibromyalgia also greatly amplifies menstrual pain and cramping. With these factors considered, it may be easy to liken the cause of your pain to your period, but if you experience any of the aforementioned symptoms, the problem is much larger and should be examined by a physician as soon as possible.
How Is it Treated?
According to Shepherd, fibromyalgia is treated with medications such as antidepressants, anticonvulsants and NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).
Exercise and physical activity are also vital to the success of your treatment. While the thought of exercising, or even getting up to move at all may be a struggle, physical activity and exercise are key components of feeling better—doing so releases endorphins, which are natural painkillers.
Physical therapy may also be a helpful route to take, as having a professional work with you to stretch your body and create new muscle memory will encourage recovery.
Both Twogood and Shepherd say that acupuncture and yoga will ease symptoms of fibromyalgia. Acupuncture relieves pressure points while yoga stretches the muscles and eases the mind—all recipes for more relaxation and less focus on the pain.
Most importantly, though, Twogood adds that treatment can be a long, challenging process, but a trusting relationship between you and your doctor is important. "Patient education is paramount," she says.
Up next, read up on another common condition that affects millions of women.