Most of us have never even heard about fibromyalgia until Lady Gaga revealed in a documentary that she struggles with it. Suddenly this quite common and debilitating condition, so often misunderstood and undiagnosed, was catapulted into the spotlight. And yet, everyone should know more about fibromyalgia, since it can strike any of us unexpectedly.
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We are all familiar with annoying headaches, occasional stomach aches or muscle pain. But how would it feel to be in pain for months or years? And not just struggle with a simple headache, but with pain in the whole body, which nothing can make go away? That is fibromyalgia.
Pain and our body
Our skin is covered with a myriad pain receptors, which form the outer parts of nerve cells, attached to the spinal cord with a long nerve fiber. When you prick yourself with a needle, for example, receptors send a signal of damage up the nerve to the spinal cord, and from there it reaches the brain, which interprets the signal as pain.
Causes and triggers
In someone who suffers from fibromyalgia, a something goes wrong in this chain, and the person feels strong pain even though no injury or disease is present. It is still unclear if the problem lies in the receptors or in the brain. In any case, a person with fibromyalgia will have a series of spots on their body that can trigger long episodes of pain: it can be elbows, knees, chest, etc.
80% of fibromyalgia patients are women, and the disease usually manifests after the age of 30. It is believed that 5 million people in the US suffer from it. Often fibromyalgia is triggered by a stressful episode (like a death in the family), an injury, or an infection. Scientists believe it may be genetic (indeed, it often runs in the family), but so far no gene mutation has been identified.
Pain and fog
Fibromyalgic pain can last for days and turn into terrible spasms. Once again, it is not an illusion of pain, not something in your head: the pain is real, but its cause is mysterious.
Pain is not the only symptom of fibromyalgia: it is often accompanied by the so-called “fibro fog”, a lack of focus and concentration that makes even simple tasks hard. Fibromyalgia patients often suffer from sleep disorders: they wake up feeling tired even after sleeping a lot, or are woken by strong pain. Another symptom is a constant and overwhelming feeling of fatigue.
An elusive condition
It is difficult to diagnose fibromyalgia, and in the past many doctors even doubted its existence. The current diagnosis guidelines are as follows: pain has to last for over 3 months, have no apparent physical cause, be felt both on the left and right sides of the body, and in the top and bottom half of the body (more on the diagnosis criteria here). Further, one has to do be checked for arthritis, lupus, and other diseases, plus do a lot of blood tests (many other conditions can result in chronic pain).
No miracle cure
So far there is no cure for fibromyalgia: scientists still have not uncovered its cause, after all. Patients have to rely on painkillers and are often prescribed anti-depressants that have been shown to improve sleep and help with the anxiety. However, studies show that many patients go off their meds soon, since they have almost no effect.
A good exercise program is key to managing the symptoms. It can feel even more painful at first, but in the long run workouts can bring significant relief, especially water aerobics (details here).
People with fibromyalgia often struggle with misunderstanding and a lack of respect for their condition. If you know someone who is constantly in pain, show them support: remember, their pain is real.