What is Fibromyalgia?
According to the National Fibromyalgia Association, fibromyalgia affects an estimated 10 million people in the United States alone. Of these, approximately 80 to 90 percent are women, according to the NFA.
Fibromyalgia is a neuromuscular disorder characterized by the chronic pain it imposes. It is classified as a rheumatoid disorder but does not cause damage to body tissues like other disorders in this class.
This video published by ePainassist explains some of the symptoms and causes of fibromyalgia.
Although the exact cause is still unknown, researchers think that it is the result of an overactivity in neurotransmitters.
These neurotransmitters are responsible for transmitting pain signals from the body to the brain. When these neurotransmitters become overactive, the perception of pain is escalated causing a range of severity in pain symptoms.
There are some risk factors for developing the disorder regardless of what the exact cause is. According to the Centers for Disease Control, some of these risk factors include a family history of fibromyalgia, anxiety, chronic stress, neurological disorders, going through a traumatic event like a car accident, and a history of serious infections.
Some people are more likely to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia than others. Some commonalities include obesity, smoking tobacco products, and having another joint condition like arthritis or lupus.
Women are diagnosed much more often than their male counterparts. There seem to be many possible reasons for this. Pain is experienced differently in females as they appear to be more sensitive to pain in general.
Women tend to experience other pain-inducing conditions like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis more than men in addition to fibromyalgia.
In most cultures, it is expected that men who have pain will not react emotionally, while women can react more outwardly. This may be another reason women are diagnosed with fibromyalgia more frequently.
Hormones may play a role in fibromyalgia. During a woman’s menstrual cycle, estrogen levels rise and fall. During certain points in the cycle where estrogen levels are at their highest, pain thresholds decrease and vice versa. This may indicate that estrogen plays a role in fibromyalgia.
People with fibromyalgia tend to be more sensitive to pain than those who do not have the disorder. This may be due to a difference in brain chemistry where the brain does not process pain in the same way as others.
People with fibromyalgia who are exposed to certain stimuli report feeling pain more frequently than those who do not have the disorder.
Fibromyalgia Symptoms in Women
Both men and women have common symptoms of fibromyalgia. These symptoms include headaches, backaches, pain and numbness in the extremities, stiffness in the joints, sensitivity to changes in the environment, facial or jaw pain, cognitive fogginess, and sleeping difficulties.
While men and women suffer similar symptoms, women tend to experience more severe instances of these problems.
The chronic nature of the pain experienced with fibromyalgia can lead to significant life changes. Living with daily pain takes its toll on energy levels and many patients spend large amounts of time in bed in order to handle it. This can lead to job loss and relationship problems.
Social isolation is a common problem among fibromyalgia sufferers. Other people have a hard time understanding the debilitating pain it causes.
Also, since there is no blood test or x-ray that can show the disorder is present and no outward damage being caused, a great number of people refuse to believe the disorder is real.
The chronic fatigue that patients suffer from will increase other symptoms of the disease. For those who are unable to get enough sleep, cognitive functioning can be impaired. This fogginess can lead to decreased job performance and make simple activities like driving impossible.
Along with chronic pain is an increase in the frequency of migraine headaches for fibromyalgia sufferers. Migraine headaches can obviously cause intense pain, but they can also cause stomach aches, sensitivity to light, and nausea and vomiting.
People with fibromyalgia develop migraine headaches on a regular basis more often than people who do not have the disorder.
One of the symptoms of fibromyalgia is increased pain levels coinciding with specific events during the menstrual cycle. Women with fibromyalgia may experience more severe menstrual cramps.
Women who normally experience difficult menstrual cycles may have a worsening of symptoms with fibromyalgia, according to Fibromyalgia News Today.
Since fibromyalgia is typically diagnosed between 40 and 55 years of age, these women experience more pain symptoms during menopause and post-menopause.
Women who have fibromyalgia and are going through menopause may have increased incidences of crankiness, soreness, achiness, and anxiety.
According to Fibro Daily, decreased levels of estrogen in menopause can conversely make fibromyalgia symptoms worse.
Women in perimenopause who have fibromyalgia have symptoms that mirror other symptoms of perimenopause. These include pain, tenderness, lack of quality sleep, cognitive fogginess, and depression.
In women who have endometriosis and are also diagnosed with fibromyalgia, the painful symptoms tend to increase.
Endometriosis causes discomfort that ranges from mild to severe. Those also suffering from fibromyalgia have more severe discomfort and pain than their counterparts.
While both men and women experience a dull all over ache with fibromyalgia, women’s pain tends to be more severe than men.
Women also tend to experience longer periods of the pain than men. This is because women have higher levels of the hormone estrogen which decreases pain tolerance.
Tender point pain is a hallmark of fibromyalgia. Tender point pain occurs in specific areas of the body. These areas are near the joints and cause pain when touched.
Women generally experience 2 or more tender point areas than men. Women also experience greater sensitivity on these points than men.
Tender point pain occurs in the back of the head, between the shoulders, at the front of the neck, on top of the chest, on the outside of the elbows, on the top and sides of the hips, and on the insides of the knees.
Fibromyalgia can make bowel and bladder problems worse. For those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia, there is a higher incidence of interstitial cystitis.
Women have a higher rate of developing painful symptoms because they have higher rates of irritable bowel syndrome than men.
Irritable bowel syndrome and interstitial cystitis have symptoms that are amplified in those with fibromyalgia. Symptoms include pain and cramping in the lower abdomen, pain during intercourse, pain during urination, pressure on the bladder, and an increased need to urinate during the day.
Women with fibromyalgia experience greater incidences of depression and chronic fatigue than men. Fatigue may coincide with symptoms that keep women awake at night, like restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea. These issues contribute to lack of sleep which in turn leads to chronic fatigue and depression.
Symptoms of fibromyalgia can happen at any time, but certain events may lead to a flare-up of the disorder. Hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, stress, and weather changes may have an impact on the occurrence and frequency of symptoms.
How is Fibromyalgia Diagnosed?
Fibromyalgia cannot be diagnosed by a simple x-ray or blood test. It can be hard for physicians to properly diagnose the disorder because of this.
A diagnosis of fibromyalgia is reliant upon a patient exam and the description of a patient’s symptoms. There are many other diseases that will need to be ruled out before making a proper diagnosis.
A fibromyalgia diagnosis can take from months to years. The most common symptoms of fibromyalgia, pain, and fatigue mimic many other diseases and disorders.
It is important for doctors to rule out any other possible explanation for symptoms prior to diagnosing the disorder and that can take time.
What is the Treatment for Fibromyalgia?
According to the Mayo Clinic, treatment for fibromyalgia is focused on managing the patient’s symptoms, particularly pain levels. There is no treatment to cure fibromyalgia, but the quality of life can be improved with certain medications and therapies.
Medications can be used to lessen the number of pain patients with fibromyalgia experience. Prescription pain relievers and muscle relaxers work to relieve pain immediately.
Other medications, like antidepressants and oral contraceptives, work to control hormone levels. Because hormone levels can worsen pain symptoms, these medications indirectly can help with pain.
Therapy is also useful in treating fibromyalgia. Physical therapy can help with joint stiffness and relieve some of a patient’s discomfort.
Psychotherapy works to help patients experiencing depression. Sleep therapy can be helpful in lessening symptoms of depression and regaining quality levels of sleep.
Because of the social isolation that can occur in fibromyalgia sufferers, one on one counseling can be very helpful. Having a counselor that patients can express sadness and difficulties with can lower incidences of suicide and depression among patients.
What is the Outlook for Fibromyalgia Patients?
Although fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder with no known cure, it is not a progressive disorder. It does not cause damage to tissues or joints like other common painful diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Symptoms of the disorder can change in severity and flare up or become less from one day to the next. This can make treating the symptoms difficult.
Finding the right medication and dosages can be challenging. New research into different medications and therapies is being done consistently.