Usually when you're in pain, you can quickly find the cause, like the muscle you strained while working out, or the cut you gave yourself while slicing carrots. Yet for people with fibromyalgia, the source of their pain is harder to pinpoint. Although they experience pain daily, it can take some time to find the cause, and to get the right treatment for it.
Fibromyalgia is still somewhat of a mystery, because no one knows what causes it and it's often mistaken for conditions with similar symptoms, like Lyme disease or depression. Some people think fibromyalgia stems from physical or emotional trauma. Others believe it's caused by an abnormal response to pain.
Whatever the cause, fibromyalgia leads to widespread areas of pain on both sides of the body, and both below and above the waist. The pain may feel like an ache, or a sharp stabbing feeling, and it doesn't go away. To be diagnosed with fibromyalgia, you need to have physical findings at at least 11 specific tender points, which can be in your arms, buttocks, chest, knees, lower back, neck, rib cage, shoulders, or thighs. Doctors may diagnose fibromyalgia without a tender point examination by using the widespread pain index (WPI), and the symptoms severity scale score (SS). If the symptoms have been present at a similar level for at least 3 months and there is no other disorder that would otherwise explain the pain. The pain may get worse when you exercise, go outside in cold weather, or are under a lot of stress. In addition to pain, you may have problems concentrating or fatigue, and waking up unrefreshed. And you may have any of a long list of other symptoms as well including in the GI tract, urinary system, nervous system, and skin.
There's no cure for fibromyalgia, but there are treatments to control your symptoms. Your doctor will probably start you on an exercise regimen and have you work with a physical therapist. Some have found real help from acupuncture, learning Tai Chi, or taking yoga classes. You may also need to take medicine to help you sleep and relieve your pain. Medicines that are commonly prescribed for fibromyalgia include antidepressants, antiseizure medications, pain relievers, and sleep aids. Meanwhile, talking to a therapist can help you better manage and live with your pain, and deal with any negative thoughts you may have about your condition.
Despite improvements in the way doctors diagnose and treat fibromyalgia, it's still a chronic condition. But by working with your doctor, you can manage the symptoms and learn to live with them, so that you can control your fibromyalgia, rather than the other way around.
Review Date: 2/19/2016
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.