Chronic pain is something millions of Americans have to live with every day.
As of 2011, an estimated 100 million people in the States suffer from chronic pain stemming from a variety of causes, most of them so debilitating that patients are unable to lead normal lives.
One of these crippling conditions is fibromyalgia.
The cause of the disorder is unknown, but it is pretty widespread. Studies show that as many as 12 million Americans suffer from it. Patients with fibromyalgia experience debilitating pain and heightened sensitivity to pressure, so much so that they couldn’t do normal activities for periods of time.
But that’s not the worst thing about it.
What makes fibromyalgia so difficult is that many people, healthcare workers included, don’t believe that it’s even real.
Is Fibromyalgia Real or Made-Up?
Unlike other conditions, fibromyalgia’s signs do not show up on scans, blood tests or xrays, earning it the nickname “invisible illness.” Many healthcare professionals who are not familiar with this condition often dismiss it as a sign of depression, stress, mood swings or ultimately, a figment of the patient's imagination.
Patients tend to hop from one doctor to another in search of relief and even then, they still risk misdiagnosis or drug treatments that don’t help with the condition at all.
Although its cause is still unknown, researchers believe that fibromyalgia is a disease of the nervous system and is not musculoskeletal in nature. Current information states that it might be caused by over-sensitive nerve cells that transmit intense pain signals or an imbalance in the neurotransmitters in the brain and spinal cord.
Other factors that contribute to the occurrence fibromyalgia include:
- Hormonal imbalance
- Other medical conditions like lupus and arthritis
Signs and Symptoms
The following are the signs and symptoms of fibromyalgia:
- Pain that presents in different ways. Patients may describe it as sharp, throbbing or dull.
- Bilateral pain. It usually occurs on both sides of the body, usually in the trunk, back, and neck.
- Absence of inflammation and damage to tissues, muscles or bones
- Tender points or specific areas of the body that hurt when pressed. People with fibromyalgia usually have 18 tender points.
- “Fibro fog” or inability to concentrate
- Sleep problems
- Stiffness, numbness or tingling in the extremities
Treatment and Management
Since there is no known cause for fibromyalgia, finding a cure has been challenging at best. The best thing both healthcare providers and fibro sufferers can do is to manage its symptoms. While there are FDA-approved pain medications for fibromyalgia, other non-pharmaceutical methods like the following can also help:
Many people claim that eliminating gluten in their diet has decreased their pain episodes. Studies show that gluten, along with other “trigger foods” like caffeine, additives, and MSG increase the frequency of pain. On the other hand, foods high in anti-oxidants like leafy greens and veggies help ease the pain, so most fibromyalgia patients have taken up a plant-based diet. Foods like nuts, lean meat, and fruits are also recommended to help with fatigue.
Some people with fibromyalgia fear to do exercises because it might increase pain. However, exercise actually increases the body’s production of endorphins and hormones to combat pain. Exercises also decrease fatigue and depression that often come with this condition. Just make sure that you’re doing it properly to avoid further injury. Make sure to stretch, warm up and move at your own pace. Low impact exercises like swimming, tai chi, yoga, and walking are great for strong muscles and good cardio.
Hot and Cold Compresses
Compresses are useful to alleviate pain and improve circulation. Studies show that the local application of cold packs to the upper back can help lessen the pain. Soaking in nice, warm baths also help with the pain by relaxing bunched-up muscles. Alternate hot and cold therapies for best results.
Rest and Relaxation
Getting adequate rest and relaxation is quite the conundrum for many patients. They know that they need rest, but most of the time their pain is too intense for them to actually relax. Breathing exercises, as well as meditation, can help achieve a restful state of mind.
Getting enough sleep and maintaining a regular sleeping pattern is also helpful, so make your bedroom a sanctuary for sleep. Avoid using gadgets like phones and laptops while in bed. Aromatherapy candles can also aid in relaxation.
Massage has a lot of benefits. It relieves pain by relaxing stiff and sore muscles. It also restores strength and muscle tone and eases fatigue. Massage can eventually even help regulate sleeping patterns and provide long-term relaxation to patients who suffer from fibromyalgia.
One of the biggest challenges of having fibromyalgia is that not a lot of people understand the nature of the disease. Many may assume that a patient is just “whining” or “faking it” when in fact, they’re in so much pain. This lack of support can lead to demotivation and even depression. If you’re suffering from fibromyalgia, joining a support group can help you cope mentally and emotionally.
Patients can also experience “fibro fog.” This often manifests as lack of focus or memory loss. One can manage it by using post-it notes with things that they need to remember, or by setting up reminders on their smartphones.
Fibromyalgia is not an easy disorder to manage. Since it doesn’t show up on many standardized tests, many patients get judged for being “lazy” or “whiny”. A lot of people tell them that it’s all in their heads. The truth is, fibromyalgia is very real and people who have it should be dealt with respect.
Fortunately, more studies are now dedicated to finding the exact cause of fibromyalgia. Hopefully, these studies can shed light on the nature of the disease and help both healthcare providers and sufferers manage and even cure the condition. For now, understanding the condition and following the management measures mentioned above should ease the burden of fibromyalgia.