Mystery sometimes surrounds the chronic condition of fibromyalgia, mostly because it affects everyone differently.
Everyone who has fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) experiences it differently, which is the main reason that misunderstanding and myth often surround the chronic condition that causes pain and fatigue.
Education is key to successfully managing symptoms, says Elyse Rubenstein, MD, a rheumatologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. Knowing the facts makes it easier to make decisions that will help you feel better.
Here’s what we know to be true:
Myth: It’s all in your head.
Fact: For people experiencing the pain and other symptoms associated with fibromyalgia, the health condition is real, says Shane Steadman, doctor of chiropractic, a chiropractic neurologist at Integrated Health Systems in Englewood, Colorado. “It can be associated with headache, nerve pain, and a variety of other symptoms,” Dr. Rubenstein adds. “The pain and fatigue can be severe and debilitating.”
Fibromyalgia isn’t a made-up diagnosis. A review of research from 1955 to 2014, published in 2014 in The Journal of the American Medical Association, described fibromyalgia as a disorder characterized by an interwoven combination of symptoms, including a heightened central nervous system pain response along with fatigue, sleep disturbances, cognitive dysfunctions, and mood changes.
Myth: Fibromyalgia is a “catch-all” diagnosis.
Fact: Fibromyalgia can take time to diagnose because the symptoms overlap with those of other illnesses. Diagnostic testing that can identify fibromyalgia doesn’t exist, but the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) has established criteria to determine when a diagnosis of fibromyalgia should be made. These include having a history of widespread pain lasting longer than three months and the number of areas on the body where pain exists, among other symptoms.
Myth: Fibromyalgia only affects women.
Fact: An estimated 5 million adults in America have fibromyalgia, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The majority of those diagnosed — between 80 and 90 percent — are women, but men can also be affected. Why FMS afflicts women more than men is not known.
Myth: Fibromyalgia and arthritis are the same.
Fact: “The diagnosis of fibromyalgia is not associated with a person’s having arthritis or some type of tissue damage,” Dr. Steadman explains. Fibromyalgia may be described by some to be “arthritis-like” because of similar symptoms of pain and fatigue, but FMS isn’t truly an arthritic condition because it doesn’t cause inflammation or joint damage.
“Pain sensation is not always associated with joint and muscle damage — it can be because of neurological imbalances,” Steadman says. The NIH reports that fibromyalgia may be present when the body has a hypersensitive neurological response to stimuli that wouldn’t normally be considered painful.
Myth: A special fibromyalgia diet is needed.
Fact: Eating a well-balanced diet is essential for overall wellness, but there is not a specific diet that has been proven effective for improving fibromyalgia symptoms, according to the NIH.
Myth: Complementary and alternative treatments are pointless.
Fact: Meditative movement therapies, such as tai chi, yoga, and qigong, appear to improve fibromyalgia symptoms, according to a review published in Rheumatology International in 2013. Measured improvements were seen for sleep disturbances, fatigue, and depression.
Myth: You should avoid exercise.
Fact: Symptoms of FMS may make physical activity difficult, but it’s crucial to find a way to make workouts a part of your daily routine. Exercise is one of the most effective treatments for fibromyalgia, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
Start where you can. If pain and fatigue prevent you from a vigorous workout, begin with a walk, or try tai chi and gradually build from there. A study published in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases in 2014 found that resistance exercise resulted in improved physical function and less pain.
Myth: You’re just tired.
Fact: A review of research published in Arthritis Research & Therapy in 2013 identified fatigue as a disabling, persistent, and stubborn symptom of FMS. It concluded that fatigue doesn’t occur in isolation, but is interwoven with other symptoms — and that the symptoms influence one another.
Myth: There’s nothing you can do.
Fact: There is no cure for fibromyalgia, but the condition is not progressive or fatal. Symptoms can be successfully managed. “The possibility of relief exists,” Steadman says.
The first step in getting that relief is to find a doctor familiar with FMS. This may be a primary care physician, general internist, or rheumatologist. Treatment options include medication, alternative approaches, behavioral therapy, and physical therapy.