University at Buffalo

Behavioral Medicine Clinic

 
 

What is Fibromyalgia?

neck pain

Fibromyalgia, or fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS), is a painful disorder that causes muscle pain and fatigue. People with fibromyalgia have “tender points” on the body. Tender points are specific places on the neck, shoulders, back, hips, arms, and legs. These points hurt when pressure is put on them.

Scientists estimate that fibromyalgia affects 5 million Americans age 18 or older. Most people with fibromyalgia are women. However, men and children also can have the disorder.

Fibromyalgia has been called an invisible illness, often denied or misunderstood. Because patients with the syndrome do not “look sick,” they are often treated without empathy by clinicians, family, and friends. This situation can lead over time to self-doubt, isolation, and diminished self–confidence.

Causes and Risk Factors

The causes of fibromyalgia are unknown. There may be a number of factors involved. Fibromyalgia has been linked to stressful or traumatic events, such as car accidents, repetitive injuries, illness, and certain diseases. But fibromyalgia can also occur on its own. Some scientists think that a gene or genes might be involved in fibromyalgia. The genes could make a person react strongly to things that other people would not find painful. Increasing attention is being devoted to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) as the underlying mechanism of FMS. Recent studies have suggested that FMS is caused by central sensitization, a change in the central nervous system in which pain signals the body would ordinarily register as minor become more intense. As a result, fibromyalgia patients may find normally non-painful experiences – such as a hug – painful. They may also feel more pain than others under similar circumstances.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

In addition to experiencing musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, and multiple “tender points,” people with fibromyalgia may have trouble sleeping, morning stiffness, headaches, painful menstrual periods, tingling or numbness in hands and feet, and problems with thinking and memory (sometimes called “fibro fog”).

Fibromyalgia can't be easily confirmed or ruled out through a simple laboratory test. Your doctor can't detect it in your blood or see it on an x-ray. Instead, your doctor will arrive at a diagnosis of FMS by relying on your description of your symptoms: where it hurts, how it hurts, how long it hurts. Most people are diagnosed during middle age. People with certain other diseases may be more likely to have fibromyalgia. These diseases include: rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus (commonly called lupus), and ankylosing spondylitis (spinal arthritis).

Treatment

Because there is no known cure for FMS, treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and improving function and quality of life. It’s important to find a doctor who is familiar with the disorder and its treatment. Many family physicians, general internists, or rheumatologists can treat fibromyalgia. Because of its complexity, fibromyalgia treatment often requires a team approach that draws upon the skills of health care professionals from many specialties including medicine, rehabilitation, and behavioral medicine. Medication and exercise are often used for different aspects of fibromyalgia (pain, decreased negative mood, sleep disturbance, fatigue). Unfortunately, there is no simple cure or fix for FMS.

Managing Your FMS Pain

Because it is hard to find an effective treatment for fibromyalgia, your pain, fatigue, and other symptoms may persist despite repeated efforts to find relief and visits to multiple doctors. As frustrating as this can be, there is hope. There are many things you can do to take charge of fibromyalgia, including taking medicines as prescribed, getting quality sleep, exercising, pacing yourself, and learning behavioral solutions for effectively handling the pain and physical limitations of fibromyalgia. In a recent study published in the Journal of Rheumatology, researchers at the University of Michigan found that fibromyalgia patients who were taught behavioral self-management skills reported a higher level of physical functioning one year after treatment ended than patients whose treatment did not include behavioral skills training. Behavioral self-management treatments have also been found to alleviate pain and stiffness, and improve sleep and mood.

If you or someone you know is suffering from pain that medications or other therapies are not effectively controlling, the Behavioral Medicine Clinic may be able to help. Contact us online or call us at 716-898-5671 to get the help you need.

Source:

Bennett, R. M., Burckhardt, C. S., et al. (1996). Group treatment of fibromyalgia: a 6 month outpatient program. Journal of Rheumatology, 23(3), 521–528.

Williams, D.A., Cary, M., Groner, K. H., Chaplin, W. F., Glazer, L. J., Rodriguez, A. M., Clauw, D. J. (2002). Improving physical functional status in patients with fibromyalgia: A brief cognitive–behavioral intervention. The Journal of Rheumatology, 29,12801286

Did you know ... ?
If one person in a family has FMS, other members of the family are at higher risk of getting it too.

Take the Pain Quiz