Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterised by widespread body pain and fatigue. It isn't caused by an injury or illness - in fact, it's not clear why some people develop fibromyalgia which can be frustrating for sufferers in itself. It's thought that it may be linked to the way the central nervous system processes pain signals. When it comes to managing this condition, there are a number of coping strategies that can help. Here we take a look at the condition in greater detail as well as fibromyalgia symptoms and treatment.
What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a common condition affecting up to 4% of the population. Patients with fibromyalgia typically complain of symptoms of widespread body pain and stiffness that affects their function, fatigue and sleep.
There may be multiple tender points on the body and the pain is present for greater than 3 months. There is no specific test for it, the patient’s story and examination will give the most clues for a diagnosis to be made.
Other Conditions that May Overlap
However, there should not be evidence of fever, muscle wasting or weight loss, swelling or redness of joints – the presence of these complaints may herald underlying disease such as arthritis/systemic autoimmune conditions whose symptoms can overlap with fibromyalgia. In this case there may be the need for some simple tests to be undertaken, usually by a General Practitioner.
Despite the fact that the cause of fibromyalgia is not yet clear, it is important to recognise that for the patients, the symptoms and impact on their daily lives is very real. Just recognising this is often the first step on the road to recovery. For many people fibromyalgia symptoms can be longstanding and developing strategies to cope with the condition may be more beneficial than aiming for a ‘cure’.
How to Improve Fibromyalgia Symptoms
Research over the years has indicated that education about the condition and exercise are both effective, drug free strategies that can help. Exercise has had proven benefits for fibromyalgia symptoms in many studies.
1. Moderate intensity aerobic exercise (such as walking, cycling, swimming) for 12 weeks improved overall well-being and physical function.
2. Strength training resulted in a reduction in tender points, pain and depression. This exercise is best done in a supervised fashion and slowly increased in intensity.
3. There is some evidence that Tai Chi also has benefits in treating fibromyalgia over and above simple stretching exercises.
A Combination of Treatment
For some psychological support is very important. Symptoms of poor sleep and fatigue can be particularly difficult to live with. Studies have shown that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a talking therapy undertaken usually with a psychologist can have good results in improving fibromyalgia symptoms and quality of life in patients. Patient education has shown similar benefits.
Some types of anti-depressants, when used in low doses have seen positive results when treating conditions other than anxiety and depression. Fibromyalgia was treated successfully in many studies with improvements in pain, fatigue, mood and sleep greater than those taking placebo. They must be prescribed by your doctor and may be a good option for some people.
In some cases, medication is used to treat pain. NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory) like ibuprofen and diclofenac have no proven benefit and should not usually be prescribed. Strong painkillers, while maybe useful in the short term, often have long term side effects and difficulties associated with their regular use including addiction and so exercise and psychological support is felt to be the better option. Research supports this.
In summary fibromyalgia is a common condition which can be both difficult to live with and to treat but there is much help available and with a focus in particular on understanding the condition and making positive lifestyle changes many people can improve their day to day function and quality of life significantly. If you have any concerns, please talk to your medical professional.
Please note, this blog is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice.
Checked and updated: 6 September 2021