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Overview of Fibromyalgia

written by: Emma Lloyd • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 6/27/2010

In the past many physicians have treated fibromyalgia as a ‘made-up’ disease but in fact fibromyalgia is a genuine condition that causes chronic pain and fatigue for millions of people.

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    What is Fibromyalgia?

    Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that causes ongoing pain and fatigue, as well as other symptoms which can quickly become very debilitating. Around 2% of people in the United States are affected by fibromyalgia. The disorder is more likely to develop in women than in men, with around 90% of people with the disorder being female. Most people diagnosed with fibromyalgia are middle aged; the risk of developing fibromyalgia becomes higher with age.

    According to some studies, people with one or more relatives with fibromyalgia may have an increased risk of developing the disorder themselves. However, it is not known whether this risk is due to environmental or genetic factors.

    Fibromyalgia is a chronic disease, the symptoms of which may last a lifetime. Even though there is essentially no cure for fibromyalgia, many of the symptoms can be managed with medication and other types of treatment. In addition, fibromyalgia is not fatal, and will not cause progressive damage to organs, joints, or muscles.

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    Causes and Symptoms

    The cause of fibromyalgia is unknown. It is thought that a combination of various factors may be involved in the development of the disease. In some cases, onset of fibromyalgia symptoms has been preceded by physical trauma, or emotional trauma, but this is not always so. For other people, fibromyalgia symptoms occur after illness or repetitive injury. In still other cases, people have fibromyalgia which is associated with an autoimmune disease such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. These causes are complicated by the fact that fibromyalgia can also occur spontaneously, with no preceding disease, injury, or trauma.

    The two defining symptoms of fibromyalgia are widespread, general body pain lasting three months or more, and the existence of tender points on the body. These tender points are spots at which the application of pressure causes pain. There are eighteen defined tender points, including the knees, elbows, lower back, and around the neck.

    Other fibromyalgia symptoms may include sleep disturbance, irritable bowel syndrome, painful menstruation, restless leg syndrome, memory and cognitive problems, headaches, and increased sensitivity to temperature.

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    Fibromyalgia Treatment

    There is no single treatment for fibromyalgia that can provide relief from all symptoms of the disorder. Fibromyalgia treatment is typically a multi-pronged approach that may include input from a range of different healthcare professionals. Medications that may be used to treat the disorder include:

    • Analgesics for pain relief
    • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for pain relief and to reduce inflammation
    • Antidepressants to increase serotonin and norepinephrine availability; lack of these neurotransmitters is associated with chronic fatigue and pain as well as with depression
    • Benzodiazepines help relax painful muscles and may reduce sleep disturbances.

    Other types of fibromyalgia treatments include acupuncture, herbal supplements, movement therapy such as yoga and pilates, and chiropractic treatment.

    Many people also find some benefit in lifestyle changes such as diet modification, stress reduction, and improving sleep habits.