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What Is Fibromyalgia? Separating Fact From Fiction

If you or a loved one are dealing with symptoms of fibromyalgia, the mystery that sometimes surrounds the condition can be frustrating. It's not a disorder that many people are familiar with, so your first question may simply be: "What is fibromyalgia?" But despite the scarcity of answers, fibromyalgia is a surprisingly common affliction, affecting between 2 and 4 percent of all people according to the American College of Rheumatology.

Nevertheless, the illness is still often misunderstood. Up until recently, in fact, fibromyalgia was met with frequent skepticism, even being discussed as controversial in a 1995 article published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.

Fortunately, our understanding of fibromyalgia and its treatment have greatly improved since then. Here's a look at what you need to know to better understand the condition.

What Is Fibromyalgia?

The name "fibromyalgia" means "muscle fiber pain" in Greek -- a fitting moniker, as intense muscle pain is the chief symptom of the condition. Occasionally, the disease even affects the joints and skin. Other symptoms include:

  • Severe fatigue.
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Forgetfulness.
  • Difficulty thinking clearly.
  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Headaches.
  • Digestive problems.
  • Temporomandibular disorder (TMJ).

Unfortunately, because fibromyalgia does not cause any visible damage to the affected tissue, it can be very difficult to detect. In fact, for many years, this was exactly the reason for the controversy surrounding the condition -- skeptics often assumed that the pain was entirely mental. Thankfully, experts now understand that this is not the case.

Understanding the Cause

Although the cause of the condition is not yet known, the National Institutes of Health notes that some scientists believe the central nervous system of a fibromyalgia sufferer does not properly process pain signals. According to this line of thinking, underlying factors may cause people to react strongly -- on a chemical and neurological level -- to stimuli that other people would hardly notice.

The exact source of this miscommunication, however, is still under examination. For some, the condition seems to be genetic. Others directly link their experience of fibromyalgia pain with a specific traumatic event, such as a car accident or extreme emotional stress. Still more patients develop the illness spontaneously.

What to Do Next?

Living with fibromyalgia is a long-term process. It's not uncommon for people dealing with the condition to see several doctors before reaching an appropriate diagnosis, largely because the illness shares symptoms with so many other conditions. To clear up confusion, the first step is to perform blood tests, X-rays, and other examinations to rule out any other possible causes.

A doctor will then consider whether or not you have a history of widespread, severe pain lasting at least three months. Specifically, he or she will ask about the amount of pain you have had in specific areas of your body during the past week. Your doctor will also consider the severity of any other symptoms you may be experiencing, such as fatigue and cognitive problems.

Treatment Options

Because fibromyalgia is a chronic condition, there is no cure. There are, however, a variety of treatments that can help manage your symptoms.

The American College of Rheumatology reports that the most effective treatment for fibromyalgia is physical exercise, particularly low-impact aerobic activities. Mind-body therapies such as tai chi and yoga can also be effective, potentially because they help to reduce stress and promote mindfulness. Various alternative therapies, including acupuncture, chiropractic, and massage therapy, have also been used to treat fibromyalgia but have not been well studied.

As far as medications go, only three drugs have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of fibromyalgia: duloxetine, milnacipran, and pregabalin.

Because there's a variety of factors to consider, managing your or your loved one's fibromyalgia will mean working as a team with your doctor and possibly other specialists. Communicate openly with them about your pain levels, and offer feedback as to what is and isn't working for you, and you'll be well on the road to living the best life you can with the condition.

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