What Every Woman Needs to Know About Fibromyalgia

woman with fibromyalgiaApproximately 5 million Americans 18 or older are affected by fibromyalgia, and, of those suffering, scientists estimate between 80 and 90 percent are women. The name alone sounds uncomfortable, but what exactly is this condition that's characterized by pain and fatigue?


The name comes from the Latin for "tissue," "muscle," and "pain," which explains the symptoms of this common and chronic disorder.

Here's what you need to know about fibromyalgia.

What is fibromyalgia?

Kit Lee, MD, a family medicine physician at Loyola University Medical Center, explains that patients present with an "all-over pain" that is typically symmetrical. So, if you experience tenderness in your right arm or leg, chances are, it'll be there in the left as well.

Patients often feel fatigued as a result of the discomfort that ranges from interrupting their sleep to keeping them up at night. There isn't a definitive test that determines whether patients have the condition. Rather, doctors make a clinical diagnosis based on symptoms.

What are common symptoms?

The condition cause sufferers to experience pain and tenderness throughout their bodies. Other symptoms include headaches, tingling in hands and feet, painful menstrual periods, and issues with memory and thinking.

"Patients experience pain that is symmetric or occurring on both sides," Dr. Lee explains. "There are trigger points that are more tender than other areas. For example, the neck, top of the shoulders, shoulder blades, above the knees, and the elbows tend to be more affected. There's a general achiness but those spots will be tender."

As the chronic discomfort prevents sufferers from getting a good night's sleep, they may experience fatigue and tiredness, which in turn can lead to feelings of depression, Dr. Lee notes.

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How do you get it?  

The causes of fibromyalgia are unknown. Rather than occurring in the joints, the pain is in the ligaments and muscles, explains Dr. Lee, who adds that there currently is not a single diagnostic test that determines whether you have the condition. Instead, doctors evaluate a patient's symptoms and the duration of discomfort in order to make the diagnosis.

Is there anything you can do to prevent it?

Fibromyalgia is "not inevitable, like heart disease," Dr. Lee says. "It's not something you can avoid by eating well."

While proper nutrition and exercise are good for the body overall, maintaining a healthy lifestyle does not mean you can prevent fibromyalgia.

How is it treated?

Dr. Lee says addressing the symptoms and making lifestyle changes can improve the condition.

"If [you] don't sleep well, if sleep can be helped, that can go a long way toward making [you] feel better," Dr. Lee says. "If you're hurting all the time, that can lead to depression. So, if you treat that, either pharmacologically or with talk therapy, that can help. Some people might say, 'It hurts too much to exercise.' But stretching can improve symptoms."

Dr. Lee says sometimes just giving patients a diagnosis and a name for the pain they've been feeling can bring relief. Once they discover what it is that's causing their discomfort, patients can begin to educate themselves and learn more about the condition.

"The main thing is that it can be treated conservatively," Dr. Lee says. "It doesn't have to be a disabling disease. By addressing aspects of the condition, sleep, exercise, mood issues, patients can start to feel better." 

Dr. Lee says it's a good idea to assemble a team of different professionals who can provide support in an array of areas. For example, a rheumatologist can rule out any autoimmune disorders. If your diet isn't a good one, a nutritionist can take a look and offer guidance. A physical therapist can help with sore muscles and mobility. 

Fibromyalgia is more common than most people realize, Dr. Lee says, but by treating the symptoms individually, patients can experience a bit of relief. 


Image via PathDoc/shutterstock

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