Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain in your muscles, ligaments and tendons, as well as fatigue and multiple tender points – places on your body where slight pressure causes pain.
Signs and symptoms
Signs and symptoms of fibromyalgia can vary, depending on the weather, stress, physical activity or even the time of day. Common signs and symptoms include:
- Widespread pain. Fibromyalgia is characterized by pain in specific areas of your body when pressure is applied, including the back of your head, upper back and neck, upper chest, elbows, hips and knees. The pain generally persists for months at a time and is often accompanied by stiffness.
- Fatigue and sleep disturbances. People with fibromyalgia often wake up tired and unrefreshed even though they seem to get plenty of sleep. Some studies suggest that this sleep problem is the result of a sleep disorder called alpha wave interrupted sleep pattern, a condition in which deep sleep is frequently interrupted by bursts of brain activity similar to wakefulness. So people with fibromyalgia miss the deep restorative stage of sleep. Nighttime muscle spasms in your legs and restless legs syndrome also may be associated with fibromyalgia.
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating associated with IBS are common in people with fibromyalgia.
- Headaches and facial pain. Many people who have fibromyalgia also have headaches and facial pain that may be related to tenderness or stiffness in their neck and shoulders. Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction, which affects the jaw joints and surrounding muscles, also is common in people with fibromyalgia.
- Heightened sensitivity. It’s common for people with fibromyalgia to report being sensitive to odors, noises, bright lights and touch.
Other common signs and symptoms include:
- Numbness or tingling sensations in the hands and feet (paresthesia)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mood changes
- Chest pain
- Dry eyes, skin and mouth
- Painful menstrual periods
Doctors don’t know what causes fibromyalgia. Current thinking centers around a theory called “central sensitization.” This theory states that people with fibromyalgia have a lower threshold for pain because of increased sensitivity in the brain to pain signals. Researchers believe repeated nerve stimulation causes the brains of people with fibromyalgia to change. This change involves an abnormal increase in levels of certain chemicals in the brain that signal pain (neurotransmitters). In addition, the brain’s pain receptors (neurons) – which receive signals from the neurotransmitters – seem to develop a sort of memory of the pain and become more sensitive, meaning they can overreact to pain signals. In this way, pressure on a spot on the body that wouldn’t hurt someone without fibromyalgia can be very painful to someone who has the condition. But what initiates this process of central sensitization isn’t known.
It’s likely that a number of factors contribute to the development of fibromyalgia. Other theories as to the cause of fibromyalgia include:
- Sleep disturbances. Some researchers theorize that disturbed sleep patterns may be a cause rather than just a symptom of fibromyalgia.
- Injury. An injury or trauma, particularly in the upper spinal region, may trigger the development of fibromyalgia in some people. An injury may affect your central nervous system, which may trigger fibromyalgia.
- Infection. Some researchers believe that a viral or bacterial infection may trigger fibromyalgia.
- Abnormalities of the autonomic (sympathetic) nervous system. Part of your autonomic nervous system – the sympathetic, or involuntary, system – controls bodily functions that you don’t consciously control, such as heart rate, blood vessel contraction, sweating, salivary flow and intestinal movements. It’s thought that sympathetic nervous system dysfunction occurs in people with fibromyalgia, particularly at night, which leads to fatigue, stiffness, dizziness and other signs and symptoms associated with the condition.
- Changes in muscle metabolism. For example, deconditioning and decreased blood flow to muscles may contribute to decreased strength and fatigue. Differences in metabolism and abnormalities in the hormonal substance that influences the activity of nerves may play a role.
Psychological stress and hormonal changes also may be possible causes of fibromyalgia.
Risk factors for fibromyalgia include:
- Your sex. Fibromyalgia occurs more often in women than in men.
- Age. Fibromyalgia tends to develop during early and middle adulthood. But it can also occur in children and older adults.
- Disturbed sleep patterns. It’s unclear whether sleeping difficulties are a cause or a result of fibromyalgia – but people with sleep disorders, such as nighttime muscle spasms in the legs, restless legs syndrome or sleep apnea, can also develop fibromyalgia.
- Family history. You may be more likely to develop fibromyalgia if a relative also has the condition.
- Rheumatic disease. If you have a rheumatic disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or ankylosing spondylitis, you may be more likely to have fibromyalgia.
In general, treatment for fibromyalgia includes both medication and self-care. The emphasis is on minimizing symptoms and improving general health.
Medications can help reduce the pain of fibromyalgia and improve sleep. Common choices include:
- Analgesics. Acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) may ease the pain and stiffness caused by fibromyalgia. However, its effectiveness varies. Tramadol (Ultram) is a prescription pain reliever that may be taken with or without acetaminophen. Your doctor may recommend nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) or naproxen sodium (Anaprox, Aleve) – in conjunction with other medications. NSAIDs haven’t proved to be effective in managing the pain in fibromyalgia when taken by themselves.
- Antidepressants. Your doctor may prescribe antidepressant medications such as amitriptyline, nortriptyline (Pamelor) or doxepin (Sinequan) to help promote sleep. Fluoxetine (Prozac) in combination with amitriptyline has also been found effective. Sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil) may help if you’re experiencing depression.
Some evidence exists for a newer class of antidepressants known as serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors or dual uptake inhibitors, which regulate two brain chemicals that may transmit pain signals. Studies have found that duloxetine (Cymbalta) may help control pain better than placebo in people with fibromyalgia. Small trials of venlafaxine (Effexor) suggest the same, though more study is needed to confirm these findings.
- Muscle relaxants. Taking the medication cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril) at bedtime may help treat muscle pain and spasms. Muscle relaxants are generally limited to short-term use.
- Pregabalin (Lyrica). Pregabalin may reduce pain and improve function in people with fibromyalgia. Pregabalin, an anti-seizure medication that’s also used to treat some types of pain, is the first drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat fibromyalgia. Studies show pregabalin reduced signs and symptoms of fibromyalgia in some people. In one study, about half of the participants taking the highest doses of the drug reported at least a 30 percent improvement. Side effects of pregabalin include dizziness, sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, blurred vision, weight gain, dry mouth, and swelling in the hands and feet.
Prescription sleeping pills, such as zolpidem (Ambien), may provide short-term benefits for some people with fibromyalgia, but doctors usually advise against long-term use of these drugs. These medications tend to work for only a short time, after which your body becomes resistant to their effects. Ultimately, using sleeping pills tends to create even more sleeping problems in many people.
Benzodiazepines may help relax muscles and promote sleep, but doctors often avoid these drugs in treating fibromyalgia. Benzodiazepines can become habit-forming, and they haven’t been shown to provide long-term benefits.
Doctors don’t usually recommend narcotics for treating fibromyalgia because of the potential for dependence and addiction. Corticosteroids, such as prednisone, haven’t been shown to be effective in treating fibromyalgia.
Cognitive behavior therapy
Cognitive behavior therapy seeks to strengthen your belief in your abilities and teaches you methods for dealing with stressful situations. Therapy is provided through individual counseling, classes, and with tapes, CDs or DVDs, and may help you manage your fibromyalgia.
Programs that combine a variety of treatments may be effective in improving your symptoms, including relieving pain. These interdisciplinary programs can combine relaxation techniques, biofeedback and receiving information about chronic pain. There isn’t one combination that works best for everybody. Your doctor can create a program based on what works best for you.
When to seek medical advice
See your doctor if you experience general aching or widespread pain that lasts several months and is accompanied by fatigue. Many of the symptoms of fibromyalgia mimic those of other diseases, such as low thyroid hormone production (hypothyroidism), polymyalgia rheumatica, neuropathies, lupus, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Your doctor can help determine if one of these other conditions may be causing your symptoms