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Fibromyalgia: What it is, How it's Diagnosed and How to Cope

Aug 17, 2007
Fibromyalgia syndrome or FMS is a disorder affecting the musculoskeletal functions of the body and affects the soft, fibrous tissues - the ligaments, tendons and the muscles. It comes from the Latin word 'fibro' referring to fibrous tissue and the Greek words 'myo' for muscle and 'algia' for pain.

This chronic disorder is quite common and is often mistaken as a condition related to arthritis. But unlike arthritis, fibromyalgia does not cause joint or tissue inflammation. However, like arthritis, it is a rheumatic condition and causes a lot of pain and feelings of fatigue.


Fibromyalgia is a syndrome and not a disease. Meaning, it is a disorder characterized by several symptoms, including pain, fatigue, joint dysfunction, chronic headaches, IBS or irritable bowel syndrome and even sleep disorder.

While some of these disorders may be experienced, they don't necessarily mean a person has fibromyalgia. Pain, for example, must be widespread and felt in the four quadrants of the body for at least three months before the possibility of fibromyalgia is considered.

Other symptoms and associated syndromes that may be felt by a person with fibromyalgia are:
- morning joint stiffness
- dysmenorrhea or painful menstrual period
- numbness in the extremities
- memory retention problems
- sensitivity to changes in temperature
- restless leg syndrome
- TMJ or tempromandibular joint dysfunction syndrome
- Irritable bladder
- sensitivity to bright lights, odors and noises
- muscle twitching
- dryness in the eyes and mouth

Another thing to consider is that there are other chronic pains that a person may experience that may overlap with the symptoms of fibromyalgia, including local tendonitis, low back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and other pain syndromes related to trauma.

Where the pain is

A routine physical examination will reveal that the patient will feel pain or discomfort when certain areas of the body are subjected to pressure. These specific 'tender points' are: the neck (including the nape), shoulders, chest, elbows, hip, the area just below and to the side of the buttocks and knees.

Who's susceptible and what causes it?

According to the American College of Rheumatology, fibromyalgia syndrome affects at least 1 in every 50 Americans, which translates to about 6 million people, 85 to 90% of whom are women. Most fibromyalgia sufferers are diagnosed with it during their 50s or 60s.

Fibromyalgia is also more likely to appear in people (especially women) who have a relative who suffers from the disorder, although whether it's hereditary or not is still unclear. People diagnosed with diseases like rheumatoid and spinal arthritis, lupus and other diseases that attack the immune system are also more susceptible.


There is no known single cause for FMS, but it seems to be triggered by several things and events, particularly extremely traumatic or stressful events that affect a person physically, mentally and emotionally, including illnesses and accidents.

Some factors that may aggravate fibromyalgia include viral or bacterial infections, stress, anxiety, depression, overwork, changes in hormonal functions like premenstrual condition or onset of menopause and changes in the weather.


Once a doctor rules out other symptoms that may overlap the syndrome, fibromyalgia may only be diagnosed by establishing two things: a history of pain that lasts for at least 3 months and pain located in at least 11 out of the 18 designated tender points in the body.

A patient must have experienced widespread pain in all four quadrants of his body and includes both left and right sides. He must also feel pain when certain standard sites on his body are pressed (pressure applied is usually 4 kgs).

How fibromyalgia is treated

A doctor may prescribe medication to ease the pain of fibromyalgia, which might include analgesics, NSAIDS or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and if necessary, anti-depressants. He may also recommend a lifestyle change and require the patient to undergo physical and occupational therapy.

Other alternative therapies might also help some, but not all, patients: massages, mild exercises like Pilates, acupuncture, herbal medicines, supplements and chiropractic treatments.

Getting the most help you can

It is very important to discuss fibromyalgia openly with your doctor. Don't be shy about asking for more detailed information and discussing possible therapies. Involving family members and friends will also help to alleviate feelings of guilt and inadequacies. You will need your support group when it comes to handling not only the physical demands of the disorder, but also the mental and emotional aspects.

Understand and accept that there might be some situations that will test your limits - work demands, family issues, household tasks, even comments from other people which can be hurtful and embarrassing. Keep your self-esteem intact and do not let this disorder stop you from achieving.

Learn to keep a stronger, more optimistic perspective of your disease by being informed, ready and keeping a network of friends and supporters around you.
About the Author
Lee Dobbins writes for http://chronicfatigue.topicgiant.com where you can learn more about chronic fatique syndrome and fibromyalgia.
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