What does fibromyalgia feel like? Ask 10 people the same question and you might get 20 different answers. Fibromyalgia pain can manifest in many different ways, but it’s not just about the physical. People with fibromyalgia will also tell you how it feels to be tired basically all the time, to struggle with “fibro-brain”, and to try to explain to their loved ones why it’s so hard to get out of bed some mornings.
But if you’re wondering if your own experience could actually be fibromyalgia, or if you’re looking for some clarity on how to support a loved one with fibromyalgia, there are a number of things you can learn about the condition- its causes, common symptoms, and natural treatments to help manage it.
Fibromyalgia: Symptoms, Potential Causes, and Diagnosis
Fibromyalgia syndrome is a chronic disorder that affects the body’s muscles, bones and soft tissue, and can cause anywhere from minimal to agonizing pain all over the body. Symptoms span such a vast spectrum that the source of pain is ultimately subjective and remains uncertain. Fibromyalgia’s subjectivity is also why this chronic disorder is often misdiagnosed as some other health problem. Now, it’s not that researchers do not understand fibromyalgia; they do. However, they have yet to find a clear cause.[2,3]
According to the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA), fibromyalgia affects approximately 10 million people in the United States, 4 million of whom are adults; it also affects 3 to 6 percent of the world’s population. Incidences of this chronic disorder tend to be higher in women (i.e., 75 to 90 percent) and is also common among siblings or mothers and their children.[4,5]
12 Most Common Fibromyalgia Symptoms
The most common symptoms of fibromyalgia may include:[3,5,6]
- Full-body pain and stiffness
- Anxiety and depression
- Waves of tiredness and fatigue
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping a long time without feeling rested
- Inability to think, focus, and remembering
- Headaches and migraines
- Numbness or tingling in hands and feet
- Restless legs syndrome
- Pain in the face or jaw
- Digestive problems such as bloating, constipation, abdominal pain, and IBS
- Temperature sensitivity
- Sensitivity to loud noises or bright lights
Despite having a broad set of symptoms, people with fibromyalgia are most often diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50-years-old, a gap likely caused by the subjectivity of the symptoms.
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
As mentioned above, researchers have yet to pin down a cause. Instead, they attribute various factors to bearing potential responsibility fibromyalgia. Firstly, infections from present or past bouts of sickness can worsen existing fibromyalgia symptoms. Secondly, genetics can play an important role in determining who gets this chronic disorder and who doesn’t. Over time, research has shown that if someone in your family has fibromyalgia – for whatever reason – your risk of eventually getting it also increases. Thirdly, individuals with other chronic disorders such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis have an increased chance of developing fibromyalgia. Lastly, physical or emotional trauma caused by, for example, a car accident can result in long-term fibromyalgia pain.[5,7,8]
Researchers around the globe are also exploring other potential causes for fibromyalgia. Specifically, some are studying the nuances of how the central nervous system, i.e., the spinal cord and brain, processes pain.
While fibromyalgia symptoms typically begin early in life, the condition is not often diagnosed until later in life. In the process of searching for answers that might help stop the constant pain, people can end up seeing countless doctors before one finally brings up fibromyalgia as the likely culprit for their pain. But this diagnosis is not as simple as you would hope, for number of reasons:
- Symptoms of fibromyalgia tend to overlap with many other common and testable health problems
- No test exists yet that effectively screens for fibromyalgia or reveals a single physiological reason for the pain
- Due to the two reasons above, doctors unfortunately misdiagnose patients, simply dismiss their pain as fake, or say they cannot do much to help
It used to be the case that doctors would offer a fibromyalgia diagnosis on the basis of having at least eleven out of eighteen ‘trigger points’, the most common of which were the back of the head, top of the shoulders, upper chest, hips, knees, and outer elbows.
Now, what the right doctor (i.e., a rheumatologist) can do is use criteria that the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) has established. This criterion includes the following:
- History of widespread pain lasting for at least 3 months
- General symptoms, such as: fatigue, waking unrefreshed, and memory or thought problems
- Finding out where the patient has felt pain in the last week
Thankfully, even with no known cause, you can still effectively treat and manage pain.
Conventional Fibromyalgia Treatment Methods
Because fibromyalgia comes with such a versatile set of symptoms, relief often takes the form of not only a combination of treatments but a combination of medical professionals. Depending on someone’s case of fibromyalgia, they may require a doctor, physical therapist, and mental health counselor, among others.
Doctors give the average fibromyalgia patient various medications to relieve both immediate physical and mental pain. Most commonly, doctors will prescribe pain relievers, antidepressants, or anti-seizure drugs. In addition to over-the-counter analgesics and NSAIDs including acetaminophen and ibuprofen, the FDA has only approved three drugs for use in treating fibromyalgia:
- Duloxetine (which is used to treat depression)
- Milnacipran (which was created for depression, but is now only used to treat fibromyalgia)
- Pregabalin (which is used to treat chronic pain caused by a damaged nervous system)
The problem with synthetic medications is the long-term side effects that inevitably accompany their use. Due to the uncertain and chronic nature of fibromyalgia, it’s almost guaranteed that you will end up using these potentially harmful medications for long periods of time.
The masking of so many symptoms simultaneously also makes this treatment route counterproductive. Yes, those medications may help with temporary pain relief, but the need to address other medication-induced side effects often leads to further long-term problems. Some of the more common side effects associated with fibromyalgia drugs are:
- Dry mouth
- Potential interactions with other drugs
- Difficulty concentrating
- Weight gain
- Suicidal thoughts
“The drug with no side effects is only in our imagination.” – Dr. Eduardo Fraifeld (President, American Academy of Pain Medicine)
Natural Methods for Helping Treat Fibromyalgia
For anyone who wishes to bypass or minimize the slew of side effects just mentioned, we suggest exploring the alternative methods below.
The Fibromyalgia Diet
While there is no actual diet catered specifically to fibromyalgia sufferers, doctors advise that if certain foods cause consistent discomfort, omit them from your meals. To keep track of the foods that do or do not lead to pain, food diaries may come in handy and the more detail the better. After a while, you may start noticing diet patterns that either make you feel better or worse. This is valuable information for both you and your doctor which will hopefully lead to a more effective fibromyalgia treatment over time. As a good rule of thumb, you should avoid these 5 foods if you experience muscle, joint, or fibromyalgia pain. If you want to take these preventative steps even further, try your best to stick to a diet full of real, whole, anti-inflammatory foods and cut out your consumption of processed foods and refined sugars.
Supplements and Herbs for Fibromyalgia
Getting enough sleep and minimizing both physical and mental stress are each crucial for people living with fibromyalgia. Fortunately, our planet produces natural anti-inflammatory herbs such as turmeric, ginger or garlic and there are supplements such as melatonin or 5-HTP that help induce and encourage deeper sleeps. Keeping inflammation at a minimum and addressing chronic fatigue before it takes too much of a negative toll on your mental health will help reduce symptoms safely.[12,13,14]
Supplementing vitamins D, B12 and magnesium can also help relieve muscle aches, nerve pain, restore muscle fibers, and elevate your mood.[15,16,17] The easiest way to benefit from these is through oral supplementation, although receiving these vitamins or minerals intravenously to targeted body parts is also optional through your doctor.
Yoga and Tai Chi for Fibromyalgia
Yoga and tai chi have been used for centuries for healing numerous physical and mental ailments. Combining meditation, mindful breathing and relaxation, there is evidence that each of these natural treatments can effectively help control fibromyalgia symptoms.
One study published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy followed a group of people with fibromyalgia for two months. Over the course of the study, researchers observed significant improvements in their stiffness, anxiety, depression, and overall wellbeing after regular practice of yoga and meditation. There was even an increase in days where participants “felt good” and a decrease in days of “missed work”.
Another in the New England Journal of Medicine conducted randomized 12-week trials with tai chi intervention. During the study, participants with fibromyalgia could continue using routine medications and seeing their primary healthcare providers or rheumatologists. They took part in a 60-minute tai chi class twice per week and were instructed to practice 20 minutes of tai chi on their own at home every day. At twelve weeks, in comparison to the control group, the group who had tai chi intervention showed greater improvements in sleep and more subjects had discontinued their use of fibromyalgia medications.
Massage Therapy for Fibromyalgia
Massage therapy is arguably one of the oldest alternative treatments that is still in practice (and alive and well). Whatever your ailment, a massage therapy session can help lower your heart rate, relax your muscles, and increase the overall range of motion in your joints.
In the journal Rheumatology International, researchers conducted a thorough review of all available studies relating to the effects of massage therapy on fibromyalgia symptoms. They found that massage therapy could offer immediate short-term relief, especially when sessions occur at least 1 to 2 times per week. Further research published in the Public Library of Science (PLOS) found that when massage therapy happened for at least 5 weeks, fibromyalgia symptoms (e.g., pain, anxiety, and depression) provided beneficial and immediate improvements. While long-term benefits could be seen, researchers concluded that more studies needed to be conducted before making any definite claims.[20,21]
Acupuncture for Fibromyalgia
Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that works on the premise of restoring balance to your body’s life forces by using fine needles to stimulate certain parts on your body and promote better circulation. The general opinion of acupuncture’s effectiveness remains quite divided, although there is some promising research suggesting that people with fibromyalgia should consider this treatment.
Chinese Medicine published a study in hopes of finding out whether acupuncture really could improve pain and quality of life for fibromyalgia patients. Researchers split the participants into two groups; over the course of five weeks, one group received 5 acupuncture treatments while the other received twice as many. After the five weeks were up, researchers found that the group who received 10 acupuncture treatments instead of 5 reported feeling less pain and having an improved quality of life.
Exercise for Fibromyalgia
If fibromyalgia is so painful, can exercise really be that effective? Studies are suggesting ‘yes’. Many people refrain from exercising so as not to aggravate their fibromyalgia symptoms. However, an in-depth analysis of randomized controlled trials and reviews of exercise for people with fibromyalgia published in Current Pain and Headache Reports suggests otherwise.
Examining everything from aerobic exercise to strength training and yoga to Nordic walking, researchers concluded that different forms of exercise can effectively lower fibromyalgia symptoms like pain and depression while improving physical function and global health. Of course, everyone is different so there’s no one-exercise-fits-all. But with the guidance of a health care specialist or physical therapist, you can find the one that works for you.