Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain, fatigue, and other symptoms. It’s estimated that one in every fifty people will develop the disorder at some point in their lives. But what exactly is fibromyalgia? And how does it affect your body? Let’s take a look at the science behind this mysterious condition.
What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia (FM) is a disorder that causes widespread pain throughout the body. The Mayo Clinic describes FM symptoms as “aching, burning or tenderness in your muscles, tendons, and joints”. Fatigue, sleep disturbances, and memory problems are also common. And while most people experience these symptoms on some level, those with FM report that their pain is significantly worse than the reported “average” person.
Although doctors are yet to discover the exact cause of fibromyalgia, most believe it’s likely a combination of physical, psychological, and environmental factors which trigger this disorder. These include genetics (family history), infections, and psychological stress.
The Science Behind Fibromyalgia Symptoms
Once you (or someone close to you) is diagnosed with FM it can be difficult to understand how all of your symptoms can be related. After all, what do “muscle tenderness” and “insomnia” have in common? Well, it turns out there are several physiological factors that could play a role in these seemingly unrelated conditions.
Studies have indicated that a dysfunction of the central nervous system plays an important role in pain perception for those diagnosed with FM. While it’s not known why this occurs, one popular theory suggests that certain systems within the brain “malfunction”, causing them to send out amplified signals of pain to other parts of the body.
As for sleep disturbances, studies have suggested that dysfunction within serotonin may play a role in FM symptoms. Serotonin is thought to influence arousal and sleep, and those diagnosed with this disorder often have low levels of serotonin. While certain drugs are currently being used to boost levels of this neurotransmitter, more research is needed to understand the complex role serotonin plays in this condition.
In addition to these physiological factors, psychological factors often play a significant role in FM symptoms. In fact, it’s estimated that over 95% of those diagnosed with fibromyalgia also suffer from some form of depression or anxiety. And while it’s difficult to determine whether these disorders cause fibromyalgia or vice versa, it’s likely that they interact with one another in a “vicious cycle” of symptoms.
While there is no single test for fibromyalgia, your doctor will likely perform a variety of tests to rule out other conditions before diagnosing you with this disorder. The process can often be lengthy – it’s not uncommon for a patient to visit their doctor several times and undergo multiple tests before receiving an official diagnosis.
For example, your medical history will likely be considered as well as your symptoms. Along with these questions, your doctor may test reflexes and muscle strength, check your joints for signs of swelling, measure your body temperature and also check blood levels of various hormones.
Treatment of Fibromyalgia
Once fibromyalgia has been diagnosed it can sometimes be challenging to treat. While some individuals find relief with medication and lifestyle changes there is no “cure” for this disorder. However, by understanding the underlying cause of your symptoms, you can identify triggers and make changes to reduce them.
Some lifestyle changes that may help include exercise, stress management, diet changes, and appropriate medication.
Exercise has been shown to decrease fatigue associated with fibromyalgia while also reducing pain. It’s also thought that regular exercise helps combat the impact of depression on your body. Depending on the severity of your condition, you should consult your doctor before engaging in a new exercise routine.
Stress management is another important aspect of fibromyalgia treatment as stress can exacerbate symptoms. While this isn’t always easy, there are several strategies you can use to reduce your stress including relaxation exercises, meditation, and deep breathing.
Diet changes may also help. In some cases, certain foods may worsen symptoms as well as interact with medications you take to relieve fibromyalgia. Common food triggers include wheat, dairy, alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. It’s also important to avoid foods that have been artificially sweetened or that contain red dye #40 – these can cause a wide variety of adverse reactions for those diagnosed with this disorder.
In addition to dietary changes, medications may be prescribed to help combat sleep disturbances and pain. In particular, sleep aids can often help improve the quality of your shut-eye. Medications may also be employed for temporary relief from pain, while antidepressants can decrease symptoms associated with depression or anxiety.
While there’s no cure for fibromyalgia, by taking the appropriate steps to address symptoms, you can improve your quality of life. With the help of your doctor, you’ll be able to identify triggers and craft a plan that can assist you in coping with this chronic condition.