Fibromyalgia is a common long-term condition, affecting 2-4% of the population, more commonly women than men, that causes pain all over the body along with many other symptoms. People with fibromyalgia often have:
- Tenderness to touch or pressure affecting the skin or soft-tissues – this is the most obvious complaint and often is misdiagnosed as tendonitis, tennis elbow, or arthritis. This tenderness is generally in a fairly symmetrical pattern over the shoulders, neck, base of the skull, upper chest, arms, legs, lower back, buttocks, hips, thighs, and lower legs - in short, all over.
- Severe fatigue – fibromyalgia is often thought to be related to chronic fatigue syndrome – there is debate about whether they are different conditions or both on the same spectrum of illnesses
- Sleep problems (waking up unrefreshed) – called non-restorative sleep
- Problems with memory, concentration, or thinking clearly (cognitive symptoms, often referred to as “fibro-fog”)
- Depression or anxiety
- Migraine or tension headaches
- Irritable bowel syndrome (commonly called IBS) with cramps, bloating, constipation or diarrhea
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (often referred to as GERD) or heartburn
- Irritable or overactive bladder, often labelled as interstitial cystitis
- Pelvic pain
- Temporomandibular disorder - often called TMJD that may include face or jaw pain, jaw clicking, and ringing in the ears.
Books and articles often say that the causes of fibromyalgia are unknown. It may be that it is the final destination arrived at from a variety of different starting points. For some people it occurs after an illness such as influenza; for others after an accident or other traumatic event. For many it develops gradually after an overwhelming incident or as the culmination of years of accumulated stressful events, often dating back to childhood. Numerous studies have found that between 50 and 63% of patients with fibromyalgia also meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, frequently reporting adverse childhood events or subsequent physical or emotional trauma. Adverse childhood events (such as the loss of a parent, abusive or chaotic households, early hospitalizations, accidents, neglect etc), and later traumas all can prime the nervous system's fight/flight/freeze response, giving rise to a sense of being unsafe in the world, and cause the body to respond with physical symptoms. Chronically elevated stress hormones change the way our glucose metabolism and digestive function work, cause increased muscular tone (tight muscles), and affect our immune system function.
There is a complex inter-relationship between our nervous systems, our hormones, immune systems, gastrointestinal system, and our muscular function, including how the energy powerhouses (mitochondria) in our cells function. In other words, although it is a very real physical condition, the pain is being produced in the nervous system in response to (usually prolonged and cumulative) internal (such as the demands or expectations we place on ourselves) and external sources of stress. It can also be triggered by sleep deprivation in some people.
For this reason, it is possible to turn the pain down or even off, by means of techniques that address past trauma, anxiety, stress, beliefs and expectations, as well as by optimizing nutrition, sleep and general well-being through regular exercise (while avoiding extreme of activity). Coming to an understanding of the condition reduces fear, which in turn can substantially reduce pain intensity.
Fibromyalgia can be best thought of as a central nervous system condition in which the brain and spinal cord are sensitized and therefore respond to sensations which are perceived as much more painful than the same sensation would be experienced by someone without fibromyalgia. It is sometimes referred to as a Central Pain Amplification Disorder. Similarly, people with irritable bowel syndrome will perceive the same degree of gaseous intestinal distension as being much more painful than someone without IBS would do. It is as though the pain ‘thermostat’ or dial has been turned up to a very high level.
Unlike rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, fibromyalgia is not an autoimmune or inflammatory condition. It can co-exist with arthritis but it is not primarily a joint condition. It does not lead to any ilife-threatening disease.
Fibromyalgia may run in families to some extent but whether this is genetic or due to a common environment (similar stresses) or a learned response to adverse circumstances is not clear. A small subset of people with symptoms suggestive of fibromyalgia have been found on skin biopsy to have an abnormality of small nerve fibres. Genetics alone cannot explain fibromyalgia. Symptoms tend to be worse with stress, over-work, excessive exercise, or sleep deprivation.
1. symptoms as mentioned above, present for more than 3 months with no other explanation
2. pressure at certain common soft tissue points on physical exam can be helpful to detect tenderness and to exclude other causes of muscle pain.
There is no specific blood test or X-ray that can diagnose fibromyalgia. Commonly tests will be ordered to exclude other conditions, for example, sleep apnea, an underactive thyroid, or polymyalgia rheumatica, anemia, iron-deficiency, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
While there is no one specific cure for fibromyalgia, approaching it from a number of different angles – certain medications, carefully structured aerobic exercise within one’s capabilities, and mind-body approaches such as relaxation, stress-reduction, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, mindfulness, Tai Chi, and clinical hypnosis or guided imagery, can be helpful. Ensuring adequate sleep is essential. Some people have co-existent anxiety, depression, PTSD, panic disorder, all of which can also be treated. Proper nutrition is also important. Anecdotally, some patients report a correlation between pain intensity and diet, such as refined carbohydrates, gluten, nightshades, or meat. This may be an individual response.
A number of medications are often tried to reduce symptoms. Most of these are “off-label”.
Low doses of an antidepressant called amitriptyline (Elavil) or related medications (such as nortriptyline or trazodone) can often be very helpful for pain, sleep, and to reduce migraines.
A muscle relaxant such as cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril) can be helpful. This is structurally similar to tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) such as amitriptyline.
A newer SNRI medication, duloxetine (Cymbalta) can sometimes help.
Additional medications include pregabalin (Lyrica) and gabapentin (Neurontin) can be used.
Another off-label medication is low dose naltrexone.
Opioid narcotic medications are best avoided as they have significant side-effects, are largely ineffective, addictive and can lead to a conditions known as opiate-induced hyperalgesia, a parodoxical increase in pain the more opiates one cosumes. Of the opiates Tramadol may be better than the others but shares all the same risks as other opiates and interacts with other medications.
Acetaminophen and anti-inflammatories (such as ibuprofen) are generally not effective for fibromyalgia but may help other co-existing pain. Sleeping tablets such as Zopiclone and benzodiazepines are not recommended.
One small study published in December 2018 suggested that some patients with fibromyalgia may respond to treatment with a diabetes drug called metformin if their average sugar level (HBA1C) was in the high normal or elevated range.
Gaining an understanding of fibromyalgia, engaging in self-care, ensuring good sleep, reducing stress, modifying behaviour, counselling, dietary modifications and supplements, and a judicious exercise regimen can all be helpful.
In my own practice a combination of tender point injections, counselling, relaxation techniques, clinical hypnosis, medication and nutritional advice, and patient-education (which may include recommended reading and journalling) can lead to a significant reduction in symptoms, periods of remission, or even resolution.