Some fibromyalgia (FM) patients find relief in getting a diagnosis; putting a name to the chronic, often debilitating deep muscular pain that characterizes the disease means the symptoms are real, not just a figment of the imagination as they are often described. Other patients aren’t so relieved; they now know they suffer a medical condition that is poorly understood, has no proven treatment, and no cure. Unrelenting pain isn’t the only symptom and FM, much more common in women than men, often comes in cluster with other troubling medical conditions.
The word fibromyalgia comes from Latin and Greek: fibro- refers, in Latin, to fibrous tissues (muscles and connective tissue); myo- and algos are Greek for muscle and pain, respectively. There are 18 body areas most often affected by FM, nine on the left side of the body and nine mirrored sites on the right, but the pain of fibromyalgia isn’t constant. It can affect any or all of these 18 sites at any one time but it can be felt elsewhere, too.
The pain of FM is often described as an aching or throbbing pain deep in the muscles. Sometimes the pain is said to be an intense burning sensation or a stabbing or shooting pain. Pain and muscular stiffness are often most intense in the morning or after repetitive use of a specific group of muscles.
Diagnosis of fibromyalgia can be tricky for several reasons:
- The pain is rarely associated with a physical injury.
- Symptoms resemble those of other illnesses, including irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
- The medical community does not agree on the validity of the diagnosis; some physicians consider it a true and specific disease while others consider it as symptomatic of other physical and/or mental disorders.
- There is no known cause of FM so no definitive test is available for diagnosis.
In 2010, the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) developed a 3-point diagnostic tool now widely used to diagnose FM:
- Severe widespread pain
- Symptoms varied little during previous three months
- Patient has no other disorder than explains the pain
The ACR diagnostic criteria has helped identify FM in an estimated 75% of the people who have it.
For every man diagnosed with FM, there are seven to nine women also diagnosed. The disorder can strike at any age but most diagnoses are made on patients between 20 and 50 years old. The disorder tends to run in families, suggesting a genetic link.
With no known origin, treatment focuses on relief of symptoms. Some patients find relief with various medications but lifestyle changes that include more cardiovascular exercise, healthy weight, and no smoking also improve symptoms for many FM patients.