Word on Health

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Word on Fibromyalgia

Many thanks to Fibromyalgia Action UK  for their help with this week's report (which you can hear again via the radio player further down this page) and to NHS Choices the use of the web material below.  Hyperlinks to gain further information are highlighted in blue. 

So what is fibromyalgia, also called fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS), is a long-term condition that causes pain all over the body. and profound fatigue. The pain tends to be felt as diffuse aching or burning, often described as head to toe. It may be worse at some times than at others. It may also change location, usually becoming more severe in parts of the body that are used most.

The fatigue ranges from feeling tired to the exhaustion of a flu-like illness. It may come and go and people can suddenly feel drained of all energy – as if someone just “pulled the plug”.

Prevalence of fibromyalgia as we highlighted on-air, a survey in five European countries put the prevalence at between 2.9 and 4.7% of the population.

Impact people with mild to moderate cases of fibromyalgia are usually able to live a normal life, given the appropriate treatment.

If symptoms are severe, however, people may not be able to hold down a paying job or enjoy much of a social life. The name fibromyalgia is made up from “fibro” for fibrous tissues such as tendons and ligaments; “my” indicating muscles and “algia” meaning pain.

Symptoms  Besides pain and fatigue fibromyalgia symptoms often include:

  • Unrefreshing sleep – waking up tired and stiff
  • Headaches – ranging from ordinary types to a migraine
  • Irritable bowel – alternating diarrhea and constipation, sometimes
  • Accompanied by gas in the abdomen or nausea
  • Cognitive disturbances including lack of concentration, temporary memory
  • Impairment and word mix up
  • Clumsiness and dizziness
  • Sensitivity to changes in the weather and to noise, bright lights, smoke
  • Other environmental factors
  • Allergies

Diagnosis  Fibromyalgia is not new, but for most of the last century, it was difficult to diagnose. Part of the problem has been that the condition could not be identified in the standard laboratory tests or x-rays. Moreover, many of its signs and symptoms are found in other conditions as well – especially in chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

Two Canadian doctors developed a way of diagnosing fibromyalgia in the 1970s and in 1990 an international committee published requirements for diagnosis that are now widely accepted. Once other medical conditions have been ruled out through tests and the patient’s history, diagnosis depends on two main symptoms:

Pain in all four quadrants of the body for at least three months together with pain in at least 11 out of 18 tender point sites when they are pressed. The “tender points”, or spots of extreme tenderness, are rarely noticed by the patient until they are pressed.

What causes fibromyalgia? It often develops after some sort of trauma that seems to act as a trigger, such as a fall or a car accident, a viral infection, childbirth, an operation or an emotional event. Sometimes the condition begins without any obvious trigger. The actual cause of fibromyalgia has not yet been found. Over the past several years, however, research has produced some insights into this puzzling condition. For instance, it has been known that most people with fibromyalgia are deprived of deep restorative sleep.

Research has identified a deficiency in Serotonin in the central nervous system coupled with a threefold increase in the neurotransmitter 'substance P', found in spinal fluid and which transmits pain signals.

The effect is disordered sensory processing. The brain registers pain when others might experience a slight ache or stiffness. It is hoped that more research will discover the cause and result in more effective treatment.

Treatment  Although there's currently no cure for fibromyalgia, there are treatments to help relieve some of the symptoms and make the condition easier to live with.  Treatment tends to be a combination of:

  • medication – such as antidepressants and painkillers
  • talking therapies – such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and counseling
  • lifestyle changes – such as exercise programmes and relaxation techniques

Exercise, in particular, has been found to have a number of important benefits for people with fibromyalgia, including helping to reduce pain. NHS Choices provides further information  on treating fibromyalgia 

Managing fibromyalgia The best way to cope with fibromyalgia is to use a number of techniques that ease the symptoms as much as possible. Learning to manage the condition seems, so far, to be the most successful way of dealing with fibromyalgia NHS Choices provide self-help tips 

Relaxation is one technique that works really well for almost everybody with fibromyalgia. It reduces tension in the mind and body right away. The results are calming for all the symptoms, especially for the pain. Relaxation can be learned from books, tapes, videos or special courses.

Heat is important A hot water bottle and hot baths or showers will help reduce pain and banish morning stiffness. Soaking hands and feet in hot water for a few minutes can ease their aching. Exercise is the most common prescription for fibromyalgia and Dr. Pellegrino’s section on this has invaluable advice about the form this should take.

Diet Although no particular diet has been shown to help fibromyalgia, a healthy, balanced diet is important to provide protein, vitamins, and minerals. It is best to avoid or at least cut down on coffee, tea, and alcohol. Some sufferers have a tendency to gain weight and this can be distressing in itself. If you follow a healthy diet this should in turn help with your weight control.

People with fibromyalgia can have good days and bad days. On a good day it is important to pace yourself; overdoing it may simply make matters worse. Rest is also important. Listen to your body when it tells you to slow down.

Support from family, friends and other people who have fibromyalgia is extremely valuable to those who have the condition.

Organisations offering  further help & support 

Fibromyalgia Action UK  

UK Fibromyalgia  

Arthritis Research UK  

Action on Pain  

British Pain Society  

Pain Concern 

Listen to this weeks radio report

All material on this website is provided for your information only and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead, readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being.