In September, pop superstar Lady Gaga announced on Twitter that she suffers from an ongoing and chronic condition known as fibromyalgia. Her tweet was met with an outpouring of support from fans, along with grateful comments from other fibromyalgia sufferers thanking her for bringing attention to this widespread and much misunderstood condition.
So what is fibromyalgia?
Speaking in very broad terms, it is chronic pain throughout the body. Living with such a condition can be very challenging for many, and scientists are still conducting research to learn as much as they can about its causes and ways to treat it.
The main symptom of fibromyalgia is widespread muscular and skeletal pain. This pain can sometimes be quite severe, and in some cases the slightest touch may feel like a jolt. The pain is generally situated on both sides of the body, above and below the waist. Typically, the pain will continue for a period of at least four months before a diagnosis is made.
Sleep disorders are another very common symptom. These can range from sleep apnea, to restless leg syndrome, to simply being awoken over and over again throughout the night because of the pain. Sufferers often awake feeling fatigued, possibly because the quality of their sleep has been compromised due to these frequent interruptions. The tiredness can be quite severe in some cases, and interfere with a person’s ability to work or attend school.
Cognitive difficulties are also frequently experienced, and these are most likely due to a combination of the pain disrupting thought processes and interfering with sleep. Fibromyalgia sufferers report feeling like they are in a fog; they may have difficulty focusing on tasks, and also experience memory problems.
At present, doctors and researchers have not pinpointed a single cause of fibromyalgia. However, there are some theories.
Firstly, fibromyalgia seems to be genetic. Parents who suffer from fibromyalgia tend to have children who also have it.
Secondly, there are some infections or illnesses which seem to trigger (or in other cases, aggravate) fibromyalgia symptoms in patients. Other medical events like car accidents, falls, or injuries may also trigger the symptoms of fibromyalgia.
Lastly, psychological distress – past abuse, PTSD, or living in a very stressful environment – seems to increase one’s risk of developing fibromyalgia.
There is no cure, but there are many treatment options available to help cope with the symptoms. Often fibromyalgia patients are referred to rheumatologists, as these specialists have a lot of experience in helping their patients to effectively manage their pain. Simply masking the pain with opioids will not fully address the needs of someone suffering from chronic pain.
If a sleep disorder is noted as a symptom, doctors can recommend a treatment such as using a CPAP machine for sleep apnea, or provide specific prescriptions for other problems such as insomnia and restless leg syndrome.
Physical therapy, or increased physical activity can also be helpful. It has been noted that some fibromyalgia patients do little to no exercise, and doctors are investigating whether or not that is an underlying cause. Appropriate stretching and light exercise appears to be very helpful.
When to See Your Doctor
If you have been experiencing a persistent dull ache throughout your body, combined with disrupted sleep or an inability to concentrate, and if these symptoms have been lingering for more than three months, it is definitely time to see a doctor.
A diagnosis of fibromyalgia is usually made after other diseases such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis have been ruled out. Once fibromyalgia has been identified, your treatment plan can begin, and you’ll start to receive some welcome relief from these ongoing symptoms.