Fibromyalgia: Seeing the illness behind the pain

Fibromyalgia is a so-called “invisible illness.” But the disease can clearly be seen for what it is: a very real and painful illness affecting more women than men.

  • The brain and nerve connection
  • Why it occurs more in women than men
  • Fibromyalgia and pregnancy

[4 MIN READ]

There was a time not long ago when health professionals considered fibromyalgia to be a psychosomatic disorder or, as the saying goes, “all in your head.” Thankfully, those days are behind us.

The American College of Rheumatology (ACR) estimates that 2-4 percent of all people suffer from fibromyalgia (pronounced fye-bro-my-AL-ja). The condition most often affects women and usually starts in middle adulthood, but can also happen during teen years and even later in life.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fibromyalgia is twice as common in women as it is in men. 

It’s not “all in your head” — but it does begin in the brain  

In one sense, fibromyalgia does start in the head. That’s because most experts believe fibromyalgia is caused by a sensory problem in the brain. In people with fibromyalgia, the brain doesn’t correctly process everyday pain and other sensory experiences. Instead, it signals heightened sensitivity to:

  • Touch or pressure that affects muscles and sometimes joints or skin
  • Hot and cold temperatures
  • Bright lights
  • Noise

Fibromyalgia symptoms

This chronic health condition causes pain all over the body and has other symptoms, too. Fibromyalgia patients often experience:

  • Severe fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • Sleep problems and waking up tired
  • Memory problems or trouble thinking clearly

Other symptoms may include:

  • Depression or anxiety
  • Migraine or tension headaches
  • Stomach and bowel problems
  • Irritable or overactive bladder
  • Pelvic pain

Why fibromyalgia may occur more often in women

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fibromyalgia is twice as common in women as it is in men. Scientists believe the condition may be linked to:

  • Hormonal changes. While more studies are needed to learn why, researchers believe one of the causes of fibromyalgia is a link between hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle or pregnancy.
  • Tender points. These points refer to nine locations on the body that have 18 painful spots — one pair of painful spots per location. While not every woman with fibromyalgia has tender points, women average at least two more tender points than men and these points are also more sensitive in women.
  • Trauma. Women who have a history of trauma are more likely to develop the condition. A recent study stated that 49 percent of women diagnosed with fibromyalgia had experienced at least one type of hardship during childhood.

Managing your health when you have fibromyalgia

Drugs are often used to treat fibromyalgia. But controlling the illness with self-caring methods is just as important. Here are a few things you can do to strive for a healthy lifestyle when you have fibromyalgia. Talk with your doctor or rheumatologist about a treatment plan that’s tailored to you.

  • Rest. Get enough sleep to help repair and refresh your body and mind. Try to limit naps in the daytime as well as caffeine intake and alcohol, all of which can affect a good night’s rest.
  • Relax. Because stress can bring on symptoms, it’s vital to try to still your stressful thoughts or deal with difficult situations using methods such as yoga, chi gong, deep breathing and meditation.
  • Rely on physical activity. It may seem counterintuitive to be told to exercise when your body is in pain. But low impact exercise can be a big part of curbing symptoms because it builds muscle and decreases sensitivity to pain. Just remember to “start low and go slow.” That means parking farther away when you’re shopping. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Swimming a lap or two or doing water aerobics. The main goal is to stay active and stay with it.

Talk with your doctor or rheumatologist about a treatment plan that’s tailored to you. Check out organizations like the National Fibromyalgia Association, the Arthritis Foundation and the American College of Rheumatology for more information on fibromyalgia.

Find a doctor

Looking for a doctor who can help diagnose or treat fibromyalgia? You can find a Providence rheumatologist using our provider directory. Or, you can search for a primary care doctor in your area.

Alaska

California

Montana

Oregon

Washington 

Related resources

emedicinehealth: Fibromyalgia

American College of Rheumatology

5 drug-free ways to find relief from pain

The Story Behind Lady Gaga’s Painful Health Condition

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Is it stress, anxiety or panic?

Everyday Health: Exercise and fibromyalgia

National Fibromyalgia Association

Arthritis Foundation

Do you have fibromyalgia? Share the treatments and self-care tips that work for you at #fibromyalgia and with #women readers @psjh.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Women's Health team is committed to providing useful and actionable insights, tips and advice to ensure women of all types can live their healthiest lives.

More Content by Providence Women's Health Team
Previous Article
Is anxiety taking a toll on your heart?
Is anxiety taking a toll on your heart?

Learn four ways anxiety can hurt your heart health from the experts at Providence.

Next Article
The ABCDs of Medicare: An overview
The ABCDs of Medicare: An overview

Read on for an overview of Medicare plans, tips on how to enroll and an invitation to learn more at a free ...