Understanding Fibromyalgia: Aches, Pains and Answers

It may still be poorly understood, but doctors are finally taking this condition seriously. Here's what we know.

Tired woman suffering from fibromyalgiaPhoto: Shutterstock

What is fibromyalgia? Find out the symptoms and treatments

For unknown reasons, women develop fibromyalgia significantly more often than men. Still poorly understood by medical scientists but at last an area of widespread research, fibromyalgia is the name for a cluster of symptoms that affects an estimated two to three per cent of adults.

The most prominent of these symptoms is pain spread widely around the body. It’s usually described as dull, constant and without apparent cause. Sufferers might also experience muscle stiffness, headaches, brain fog or fatigue.

Most patients are diagnosed in middle age. On average, it takes more than two years to get a diagnosis, in part because there are no lab tests to confirm it. Your doctor might still order some to rule out other issues, such as multiple sclerosis.

Fibromyalgia’s exact cause remains unconfirmed. A popular theory is that it’s a disorder of the central nervous system—i.e., something’s gone wrong with the way the brain processes pain signals from the nerves.

Because patients show few or no external signs of their suffering, some doctors have chalked fibromyalgia up to overactive imaginations. However, this position is becoming less common as more studies show that the condition is fairly frequent. Many medical authorities, including the World Health Organization, now recognize fibromyalgia.

Unfortunately, there’s no known cure; existing treatments are aimed at relieving symptoms. Patients are typically encouraged to try non-pharmaceutical measures first, then add drugs (muscle relaxants, painkillers) if necessary.

To date, the most effective method of tempering pain seems to involve graded exercise. This means starting at an appropriate level—which can be quite moderate—and gradually working up, says Dr. Gary Macfarlane, lead author of the European League Against Rheumatism’s recommendations for managing the condition. Exercise brings at least modest relief to the great majority of sufferers, possibly by boosting endorphins, reducing stress, improving sleep or increasing blood flow to the person’s muscles.

Another common fibromyalgia treatment is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It won’t eliminate your pain, but this treatment will give you tools for coping with it. CBT will teach you to pace yourself and remain somewhat active, even on highly symptomatic days.

It’s important to have realistic expectations for current treatments, since they tend to bring moderate improvement at best. As Macfarlane says, “There’s still a great need to understand this condition better and bring optimal care to these patients.”

There is evidence that cannabis can help insomnia caused by fibromyalgia. Find out how—and what other conditions can be treated with medical marijuana.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada