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Fibromyalgia and ‘Brain Fog’

May 4, 2008

Do you sometimes feel spacey? Do you often find that while others are talking around you nothing is sinking in? Do you lose your train of thought mid-sentence?

These are but a few of the questions you can ask yourself if you suspect you have those terrible ‘brain fog’ experiences, says Dr. Keddy.

If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then you, like millions of others share a frustrating syndrome that is, like fibromyalgia itself, invisible.

Brain fog is not just an issue for those of us who suffer from fibromyalgia and/or chronic fatigue but can occur at different stages of life. For example, many new mothers complain about those same ‘symptoms’ but usually they are the result of lack of sleep and hormonal changes. Yet again, menopausal women often report brain fog associated with this time of their lives, no doubt due to hormonal changes, or hot flashes that result in lack of sleep.


Some people with diseases like multiple sclerosis also find that often they are plagued with a sensation of muddled thinking. And then there are the effects of the aging process when we seem to be perpetually forgetting things, like a person’s name, or words, or the names of objects, and we ask ourselves if we are developing the dreaded Alzheimer’s Disease.

It is reasonable to attribute much of that cloudy sensation (that some of the women whom I interviewed laughingly called ‘brain farts’) to a sleeping disorder or the poor quality of sleep that accompanies fibromyalgia. I suspect, however, that this fuzzy thinking is primarily the result of an over stimulated nervous system that can cause adrenal exhaustion. It seems to be worse at times of stress, over-tiredness or excitement.

What do I believe is the cause of this “brain fart” in the fibromyalgia sufferer? I think it begins in the adrenal glands, those little things that sit atop the kidneys.

The adrenal glands produce the hormone Cortisol which is a major hormone affecting the stress response of our bodies. Many of us believe that fibromyalgia is caused by an inability to calm the nervous system so that we are continuously hyper-aroused, rather than in a restful, calm state. The end result of this is an under-stimulation of the adrenal glands and subsequent loss of output of Cortisol, and finally, adrenal exhaustion.

Among the several effects of this condition are the severe chronic and acute aches and pains of fibromyalgia and, in particular, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) which can cause spacy thinking, lack of clarity of thought, dizziness and the other general characteristics of brain fog. Needless to say, fatigue goes hand-in-hand with this whole process.

There are ways to somewhat counteract these unwelcome episodes, among which are avoiding stimulants like caffeine and increasing the intake of complex carbohydrates like grains while avoiding sugars like those found in candy and soft drinks. But, aside from food and drink, how do we cope with these flare-ups on a daily basis?


This foggy sensation gives the person a feeling of muddled and confused thinking which can be embarrassing. We are often forced into asking people to repeat the conversation and even then becoming frustrated with ourselves and why we just cannot ‘get it’! Learning new things, like a foreign language, catching on to simple jokes, or mastering new games like bridge and chess can be challenging. Couple this with aging and it often requires time out just to settle the mind.

How do we deal with all these invisible symptoms of fibromyalgia? I still cannot adequately answer this question in spite of living 40 years with fibromyalgia. Those of us dealing with this demon are usually taking pain medication like Lyrica or Neurontin. Others, who may be depressed because of the pain and/or sleep deprivation, are often on traditional or complementary herbs or pharmaceuticals for depression. However, what does a person do for brain fog, that elusive peculiar sensation of not always being in charge of your thoughts? The need to find answers to this question is critical because there is currently no medicine to treat this symptom.

Because we often look well it is not easy to explain to others how we suffer from pain, sleeping problems, perhaps depression, maybe intestinal disorders among a host of other chronic challenges. But, to add to that, we often lack concentration that directly affects others who expect more of us since we look so healthy!


In the absence of a proven remedy, I believe it is humor and the ability to laugh at ourselves that could save us at times when we lose our train of thought and appear spaced out to others.

Most importantly, gentle exercise, walking, strengthening weights if done slowly, Tai Chi, Pilates, or whatever best suits our life style and abilities certainly help.

I have written extensively on the particular challenges I have faced in incorporating these treatments into my daily life. It is my hope that you can learn from my years of experience as a fellow fibromyalgia sufferer and improve your quality of life.
________________________

About the Author:

Barbara Keddy, Ph.D., is author of the book “Women and Fibromyalgia: Living with an Invisible Dis-ease” which details her experiences with and knowledge of fibromyalgia. You can learn more about her at her web-site http://womenandfibromyalgia.com

Comments

26 Responses to “Fibromyalgia and ‘Brain Fog’”

  1. Ray on December 5th, 2008 5:37 pm

    I’m a 60 year old male who has had fibromyalgia since i was 42. My legs stay ice cold all the time almost to a crippling affect. Very painful. I have headaches all day. My mind is in such a fog that it effects my short term memory. My fiance’ really gets upset when I can’t remember something important. Plus my sex drive has gone from 100 mph to a dead stop. This bothers her even more. This has bothered me more than I can possibly explain to her. It has us both on edge. This has hindered our relationship and communication. I love this lady more than I could ever say or show. I take more medication than I care to say. I can handle most of the pain, but i can’t hardly handle this brain fog. It gets so bad that it takes all the effort I have to get up and take my medicine. Isn’t there anything out there to help us with a crippled brain?

  2. barbara keddy on December 6th, 2008 7:19 am

    Dear Ray: Thank you for your comments regarding this article. It isn’t often that men write to me about fibromyalgia and there are thousands like you out there, male and female with brain fog. It’s always so difficult to know if what we are experiencing is ‘fog’ or due to aging when short term memory becomes more difficult. I wish I had answers for you. The old adage applies”use it or lose it”, meaning exercise our brains. Crossword puzzles, bridge, chess are among the suggestions that help with brain challenges. Having said that it isn’t easy to take up new things when feeling so poorly. There are many experts who are involved with brain and its relationship with pain and others who write specifically about ‘changing your brain’ among them is Dr.Daniel Amen whom I have watched on PBS. Taking many medications can also cause brain fog and I would suggest discussing this with your family physician as not many medications help with fibromyalgia and perhaps he or she will find ways to reduce your meds if appropriate.
    Best wishes to you,
    Barbara

  3. lotusbud on December 28th, 2008 1:57 am

    I have ME/CFS with lots of brain fog. 15 years ago I started to the practice
    of Nichiren’s Buddhism which consists of chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.
    The results have proved very positive for me in helping to clear up alot
    of the brain fog and other symtoms associated with CFS and also helps
    the pain in my body. The antidepressant Effexor also helped me with
    the pain and other symtoms by lessening the oversensitivity to pain and
    other oversensitivities. I think it’s worth a try. You can go to the website
    that explains how to practice at http://www.sgi-usa.org. All my best to everyone…
    lotusbud

  4. barbara on December 28th, 2008 11:37 pm

    Thanks for your comments, lotusbud! Any kind of quieting meditative techniques seem to be very helpful for those of us with FMS and CFS. Many of the women in my book are on Effexor as well. We all have to try whatever we can to help us through our daily challenges!
    Best regards,
    Barbara

  5. Cynthia Binkley on January 27th, 2009 6:33 am

    I have recently been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I understand that FMS can be a complication or associated condition with other auto-immune diseases. Is that true? 8 different doctors feel it is Crohn’s, but with my first top to bottom endoscope and 5 biopsies they were unable to find a positive biopsy for Crohn’s. My symptoms and other related complications align perfectly with Crohn’s, but not severe enough to confirm. In my case, the related IBS is bad, but what I read recently suggests that I may be suffering form adrenal exhaustion. What tests should I ask my doc to get to rule that in or out?

    In general what temporarily helps are hot showers. I also take a a combination of tramadol, gabapentin, baclofen and bentyl. Most of the time this combination helps, but lately, the hot flashes, sweats, and insomnia (where I just cant turn my brain off), and peripheral neuropathies/dry skin is almost intolerable. Would it be safe for me to add Effexor for increased comfort? My mother was on it, but got off recently and she isn’t doing as well since then. Her doc swiched her to Cymbalta. She also was just diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

  6. Nicole on March 18th, 2009 9:58 am

    I’ve been diagnosed with fibro for about a year, and brain fog is possibly the most frustrating thing, especially since I’m only in my mid-twenties! I forget words midsentence, have difficulty focusing on conversations, and sometimes trouble distinguishing whether things actually happened or not (was it a dream? a story? or real?). I’m in grad school as well so that’s interesting.

    I’ve found that meditation and learning to stay in the moment help me to focus on what is going on instead of drifting away. I keep a daily pain journal and also go to a CBT therapist. Mindfulness is a life saver. I don’t take medication for the fibro, though I’m on an SSRI for depression/anxiety/IBS. To be honest I think depression causes brain fog too. Glad to find this magazine!

  7. kellly moore on July 8th, 2009 10:16 am

    I am fairly healthy 66 yr. old lady. My fibromyalgia is under moderate control without medication. I am sedentary and even moderate exercise hurts. My problem is sometimes I drive to the wrong place, can’t remember things that are told to me, forget experiences and yesterday I gave wrong directions to the mall to a house guest. (she was driving, she gave a wrong suggestion about where the mall was and I agreed and took her the wrong way. To me my condition does not sound like fibro fog. Is it?????

  8. barbara keddy on July 8th, 2009 5:48 pm

    Dear Kelly: I don’t know if what you are experiencing is brain fog from fibromyalgia, aging or something besides those two things. Have you spoken to your physician about this?
    As for being sedentary, please remember that ‘motion is lotion’ and if you don’t move your condition will eventually worsen. Can you do gentle movements to begin with? Deep breathing, meditation, motion and gentle exercises would really help.
    Best wishes, Barbara

  9. Benia on August 20th, 2009 9:42 am

    I have Fibromyalgia and deal with frequent bouts of fibrofog, especially during flares (like the one I’m having right now). I hear myself babbling incoherently or having trouble deciding between words or sentences – so they come out mixed up. It’s frustrating to know what I want to tell someone, and hear gobbledygook instead (especially at work, where my income is at stake). Watching TV I seem to have a hard time hearing and seeing at the same time, and end up missing what was said, so I frequently remind my TiVo to help me follow narrated documentaries or other shows I like to watch. I still feel like I’m not taking in the whole thing, though – like there are holes in what I just experienced.

    Thank you for posting this helpful explanation of the fog that I experience. It’s nice to be able to share a link with “normals” who must wonder what’s wrong with me when I am so spaced out.

    I also wanted to share my theory on brain fog. I have explained it to “normals” this way: When a person is in pain, it’s hard to concentrate on conversations and other things. The pain distracts one from things in life. It’s keeping my mind busy, especially when the pain keeps changing, or gets severe, because it is harder to ignore. A person can only concentrate fully on one thing at a time, really, even when multi-tasking. Always having pain (not to mention fatigue and a sleep disorder) as a huge distractor from the tasks of everyday life. I can’t turn the pain off, so, give me a break.

  10. carcie on August 23rd, 2009 6:57 pm

    I experience something I can describe as blanking out for a second at a time. I sometimes feel lightheaded, its like I am loosing control of my mind for periods of time. It is scary.

  11. barbara keddy on August 24th, 2009 6:19 am

    Hi Benia: My own brain fog has been quite awful this past week. No doubt because Hurricane Bill has hit Nova Scotia and days before I was in a flare up and not able to concentrate. It does become frightening especially as we all experince fear about some form of dementia setting in! But, brain fog is quite different and it is so much better at times, depending upon our state of mind. Your advice to ‘normals’ is a good explanation. Keep on being ‘out there’ with working on understanding this hateful dis-ease! Barbara Keddy

  12. Lorie on August 30th, 2009 12:31 pm

    I don’t call it fibro fog any more, I call it Fibro mud! When my husband talks to me, I look at him like “what are you talking about” and that is the truth. He may have to repeat it over and over, or I will say forget I will never get it now, maybe later. I have to write everything down, just me the post it queen, although I forget to look at the post it! Or I don’t write enough info down …. still can figure it out. Someone will tell me some thing and a few minutes later, that conversation comes up and they say I told you that! I say no way! I don’t remember that!
    Or I did a load of laundry and left it in the washer until the next day! I could write a book on it! I feel like I am losing my mind, and I am telling you the truth on that for sure, no exaggeration there at all.
    Then comes the pain ….. 24/7 head to toe, and fatigue wow I could sleep all day and night. But then the pain comes to haunt me and I can’t sleep!

    I have tried to laugh at myself, I do laugh at myself …. but I feel old, and I feel like I am losing my mind! I am living in a horror film, and I bet anyone out there with Fibro, CFS, or anything of such nature will understand this.

  13. Sharlene on September 23rd, 2009 9:32 pm

    I just found out within the last couple of weeks that there is a name to this loss of words, inability to stay focused, saying one thing when I’m thinking another, forgetting major tasks at work (and it causing serious problems) and it’s called fibro fog. I thought I was losing it and afraid to say anything and have tried to cover up the problem.

    On the rare days when the pain is minimal I think gee maybe all the pain I have is psychosysmatic and then the “normal pain filled” days I think there is no way this is all in my head. It’s hard to think or remember anything when you hurt all the time and take pain meds. I’ve really put my career in jeopardy with forgetting things and hurting so much I don’t want to do anything but lay down. How do others cope with the work so they don’t lose their income. My job is extremely stressful from the type of work I do and the fact my boss and I don’t always see eye to eye.

    I also suffer from psoraisis which is double wammy. The meds for the psoraisis combined with my Lyrica caused my mouth to be so dry and caused infections it lead to cavitites. I’ve not had a cavaity in over 40 years. I can do without Humira, but not Lyrica. If I’m not on Lyrica I can’t get out of bed.

    Are multiple autoimmune diseases typical if you have FMS? I have other weird things going on and I wonder if they are from FMS. I will have a split second of blindness (one blink and it’s black the next it’s ok); on occassion my throat will “freeze” and I can’t swallow; and to add insult to injury I will sleep walk and raid the fridge, fortunately the sleep walking is rare (I’ve just started the sleep walking within the last year).

    How do you cope when you look at the future and all you see is pain and feeling like the quality of life I have is crap. I hate being negative, it’s a new emotion for me and I hate not being able to plan ahead, entertain, and do all the things that I loved before FMS.

    Oh, it’s late and I feel like I’m rambling, hurting and feeling sorry for myself. Look forward to others responses.

    Sharlene

  14. barbara keddy on September 24th, 2009 6:35 am

    Dear Sharlene:
    You are not alone and your story is so familiar to me. I hear it everyday on the website http://www.womenandfibromyalgia.com There isn’t anything about fibro that I haven’t worked through myself. When our nervous systems are ‘out of whack’ all sorts of weird things happen. Having a stressful job does not help. Have you tried going on disability? I know how you feel when you say you miss all the things you did before. That kind of loss is one of the sad things about this dis-ease.
    Best wishes,
    Barbara

  15. Danielle Bowen on November 4th, 2009 11:24 am

    “I think it begins in the adrenal glands, those little things that sit atop the kidneys.”

    I also have been wondering about the possibility of a relationship between adrenal insufficiency and fibromyalgia. A lot of my symtoms during a “flare” correlate to the symtoms of adrenal insufficiency. Is there any information about this that I can share with my physician?

    The problem I see with diagnosing adrenal insufficiency is that a person must be tested when the problem is acute. My experience is that I am bed-bound and VERY foggy while experiencing these symptoms so getting myself to the hosptial for the tests is not likely to happen. In addition, the costs of more testing is prohibitive.

    I am currently employed, but in this economy I worry now more than ever that my employer may decide that I’m too much trouble as they bear the brunt of my ‘wonderings’ because we are self-insured. I hate to put them through my foggy days and the expense of all my tests.

    Any helpful hints or ideas would be greatly appreciated.

    Danielle

  16. barbara keddy on November 4th, 2009 3:29 pm

    I agree with your view that it is in the adrenals. read my blog of March 25/09 The Pain is in the Brain on my website http://www.womenandfibromyalgia.com where I talk about the adrenals.
    These issues are so complex. It takes so much discipline to work with our brains and remapping them and the older one is the more difficult it is to make matters worse!
    Have you tried any of the strategies I mention on my blogs for remapping?
    Best wishes,
    Barbara

  17. David Granovsky on November 12th, 2009 5:08 pm

    Great name for a magazine! I found a number of clinical trials concerning treatment of fibromyalgia: http://clinicaltrial.gov/ct2/results?term=fibromyalgia

    Also, people have been treated with stem cells and shown improvement. One 77 year old patient received stem cells with this procedure:

    Remove 5 cc’s of fat removed from tummy fat which
    Stem cells were separated from the fat cells
    Stem cells frozen to -196 Celsius degrees.
    Grew stem cells to over 400 million
    Implanted 100 million directly into face
    Implanted 200 million in arm intravenously on August 24th

    He had a recovery rate of 95%, minimal to now pain in legs, sleeps through the night with no cramps, recovery from anemia, etc.

    Finally, there is a patient advocacy institute (Repair Stem Cell Institute http://repairstemcells.org) that can pair fibromyalgia patients with the best treatment center for them and assist them through the entire process for free: http://repairstemcells.org/Treatment/Diseases-Treated.aspx

  18. Lorie on January 1st, 2010 4:41 pm

    I posted something and there is no reply back to it. But it does say:
    “Lorie on Your comment is awaiting moderation. August 30th, 2009 12:31 pm”

    What does this mean? I don’t have a clue, but it seems mine is the only 1 that looks like this.

  19. Dawn on January 12th, 2010 7:07 am

    I,too, suffer from b rain fog. It is by far the most stressful and embarrasing symptoms for me.
    I teach school, and I often struglle with my organization and memory. I forget meetings (even though I have written everything down), forget where I put thins, and when I talk to colleagues, I can’t even get my words out correctly. I have also started to stutter, and that is even worse since a lot of my job involves speaking. What do you do when you can’t get a student’s name out? I call kids ‘honey’ when I get stuck!
    I am sure that my boss would love to replace me with someone who is more togeterh and healthy. I am at home again today with a flare up. I am so embarrassed of myself, and so worried about getting into trouble where I work. Not everyone is understanding of this.

  20. barbara Keddy on January 12th, 2010 10:13 am

    Remembering names and especially book titles and authors which I needed to know for teaching was so difficult for me too. Now even people I know very well I sometimes can’t remember their names. Added to this is the aging process which doubles the problem. I am trying many strategies to remap my brain and the challenges are enormous! The more anxious we become the worse it is! Deep breathing helps sometimes.
    Best regards, Barbara

  21. Darcy on January 17th, 2010 8:01 pm

    MAN!!! this explains so much! I have been going to the doctors for years now and know one can tell me what isgoing on…. Elevated ANA, body aches, cant loose weight , my bones in my legs ache, brain fog is the worst and have just started stuttering…. where to from here? Damn doctors havent said anything about fibro.

  22. barbara Keddy on January 17th, 2010 11:08 pm

    Darcy: How about mentioning fibromyalgia to your family physician to see what the response is?

  23. Tammy on January 22nd, 2010 10:52 am

    My doctor told me in November that based on all my symptoms that she feels that I have FMS. I went through three months of terrible pain and most every FMS symptom that is known. After talking with my doctor, there have been many signs for years but I still don’t know if I truly want to say that I have FMS. After Christmas, I began to feel somewhat better. By the first of the year, I thought that I was beginning to feel like my old self again. But just as I think that maybe my doctor was wrong, I will have a bad day or two or so. Just achy all over, have a headache, very tired, and just mentally feeling out of it. My doctor ran about nine different blood tests to rule out any other problems, but I have two questions: first, are there any other tests that can be performed and secondly, I am still unclear how to know if I am having a flare-up. Is it possible to go for a period of a few weeks where you feel good and then start to feel some symptoms again. I have been researching online, but need some clarity on FMS.

  24. Joe Goolam on January 30th, 2010 12:28 pm

    I am a 32 year old male who has been suffering with this issue for nearly 8 years and nobody has taken me seriously. I found the CFIDS website a while back and have not been to a recommended doctor as yet or to one who specializes in fibro, since my second doctor has said there is nothing medically wrong with me. I know I have a problem since I have headaches and back pain all the time; and for someone who was extremely fit (great athlete in soccer, track events etc) and also which my old friends and family can testify to, really smart. I was able to read books in a few hours and capture virtually everything and now cannot absorb one page. If it was not for my wife and kids, I would end my sorry life.

  25. barbara Keddy on January 31st, 2010 12:57 am

    Dear Joe: Your comments are so very sad, but you are not alone. There are so many of us out there who often feel that sense of hopelessness. have you read much on the new brain findings about changing your brain? I have written many blogs on it and there is hope for someone like you who is so young. read as much as you can absorb on neuroplasticity and read some of the articles I have written about how new brain pathways can be remapped and have hope that there is life while living with fibro. Very best wishes, Barbara

  26. Pablo on February 25th, 2010 6:06 pm

    The real fog is the fibromialgia mesh.
    For neurologist this “fibro fog” has a name; “congnitive impairment”, and is typical in diseases like multiple sclerosis. Do not talk a neuro about fibromyalgia, ¿What is this? they say. For fibro sympthoms they have their own diagnostic, doing the right test of course.
    I´m fibro and spondylitis diagnosed by some reumatologist, and auto-imunne peripheral neuropathy by two neurologist. The sympthoms are the same for both. I think the only real thing is that I have anti-MAG/GD1a antidodies at high levels in my blood, have been tested for them, and some improvement with Imuran (aziatioprine) treatment, and diet, quiting dairy productos, bread, eggs.

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