"I use the word 'suffer' not only because trauma and chronic pain have changed my life, but because they are keeping me from living a normal life."
When Lady Gaga used these words on Twitter to explain why she canceled the rest of her 2018 European tour, she gave voice to the estimated 5 million people in America who cope with the debilitating condition called fibromyalgia.
"The impact of fibromyalgia on a person's life can be profound," says Sanjay Chabra, DO, a rheumatologist at St. Jude Heritage Medical Group. "There can be constant pain throughout the body, that can trigger effects ranging from sleep disturbance, sensitivity to temperature and pain with contact, as well as problems with concentration and memory commonly known as ‘brain fog.’"
What is fibromyalgia, exactly?
It's understandable for people unfamiliar with fibromyalgia to be confused about it.
"Fibromyalgia can cause pain in the body's tissues and joints similar to arthritis. But while arthritis often revolves around a problem in the joints, such as worn cartilage or inflammation, fibromyalgia is considered a neurological issue where the brain is extremely sensitive to pain signals in the body," Dr. Chabra says.
Even more confusing: there's no specific cause for fibromyalgia. "It is thought that genetics could play a part if there is a family history of fibromyalgia," Dr. Chabra says. "Other times, symptoms start after a traumatic incident, whether physical or psychological. Women are more likely to get fibromyalgia than men, and people who have other health conditions such as autoimmune disease--i.e., lupus or rheumatoid arthritis--may be at higher risk as well."
Pain is the key to a diagnosis
With so many variables and unknowns, it's not surprising that fibromyalgia can be difficult to diagnose. "There is no test for it, and symptoms such as pain, cognitive problems and fatigue can be signs of other medical issues as well as fibromyalgia, so those may need to be evaluated first," Dr. Chabra says.
“The symptoms of pain and fatigue tend to be out of proportion to what is seen on physical examination, and getting a good history from the patient is key to narrowing in on a fibromyalgia diagnosis," Dr. Chabra adds. "Typically, the pain is progressive over a three-month period, and diffuse in nature, not limited just to one specific area." Unfortunately, once there is a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, there is no specific cure--but there are plenty of things people can do to treat it to achieve a better quality of life."
Living well with fibromyalgia
A treatment plan is usually tailored to each patient and can consist of many components:
- Medication: "The drugs used to treat fibromyalgia work by modifying neurochemicals in the brain or blocking the nerves that send pain signals to the brain," Dr. Chabra says. "There are side effects for each one, so the patient and physician must work together to find the best fit for the patient's health and lifestyle."
- Physical activity. "Low-impact exercise can help alleviate pain, whether it's aerobic activity such as swimming or something focused on slow, strength-building movements such as yoga," Dr. Chabra says. "A physical therapist can also be helpful in coming up with daily exercises patients can use to ease and manage their pain."
- Mental therapy. "Dealing with chronic pain and the obstacles it can place on everyday life can lead to stress or feelings of anxiety or depression," Dr. Chabra says. "Meeting regularly with a counselor can help process some of those emotions, as can stress-relief techniques such as meditation and deep breathing. Taking care of a fibromyalgia patient's mental health is an important component of caring for the person's overall wellbeing."
- Adequate sleep. "Because fibromyalgia pain can keep people up at night or cause a mental fog, it's important to focus on healthy sleep habits," Dr. Chabra says. Patients can use strategies to create a healthy sleep environment, or talk with their physician about possible options.
- Complementary medicine. "While there haven't been many studies on their effectiveness, alternative therapy techniques such as massage and acupuncture may help in pain relief, so patients may want to explore those options with advice from their physicians," Dr. Chabra says.
"Fibromyalgia sounds like a daunting disorder, but patients should try to keep a positive outlook," Dr. Chabra says. “Managing fibromyalgia is possible. It requires a balance of mind, body and spirit, in addition to a multidisciplinary treatment plan.” Patients need not let fibromyalgia define their lives.
Do you have fibromyalgia? Share a comment about what treatments work for you. If you need to talk to a doctor about fibromyalgia, visit our Find a Doctor page to select a physician near you.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.