Fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) is a chronic condition that causes pain throughout the body. Although the name “fibromyalgia” is taken from Latin and Greek words meaning “pain in muscle and connective tissue,” the pain is thought to be a result of problems with how the brain works. About 2-4% of the general population may have the condition, and it is more common in women than in men, although the reason for this is unknown.
In addition to widespread pain, people with FMS typically have many other symptoms, including fatigue, problems with sleep, morning stiffness, bowel and bladder problems, trouble thinking clearly and other problems. Many people with FMS also suffer from depression or anxiety.
Physicians do not yet know what causes FMS, but they have some ideas. The dominant theory is that fibromyalgia reflects an abnormality in the way a person’s nervous system processes sensations. Normally, a person experiences pain in some part of his/her body when there is tissue damage in that area. But the nervous systems of fibromyalgia patients are “sensitized,” so that the patients often experience pain in various parts of their body even when there is no tissue damage in these areas. Although physicians are not certain about all the reasons why some people’s nervous systems become sensitized, there is evidence that this can occur following injuries or emotionally stressful events. Also, there is evidence that genetic factors play a role.
A family history of FMS is a risk factor for developing the condition. Stress may also play a role.
There is no laboratory test for fibromyalgia. Instead, your physician can diagnose the condition on the basis of your symptoms and the results of a physical examination. The most important symptom is widespread chronic pain. The physical examination finding that supports a diagnosis of fibromyalgia is widespread tenderness.
Other health problems — such as rheumatoid arthritis or thyroid disease — can have similar symptoms to FMS. Your physician will make sure you do not have any of these conditions before diagnosing you with fibromyalgia.
If left untreated, the severe chronic pain from FMS can lead to physical and mental health problems. People with chronic pain often have trouble functioning at home and at work, a lower quality of life and may become depressed or anxious.
Self-care is crucial for patients with fibromyalgia, for the simple reason that medical treatments do not cure the disorder. The most helpful treatment is rehabilitation in the form of light aerobic exercise. Studies have shown that swimming or walking can reduce pain and tenderness as well as improve fitness. It can also help sleep patterns. Exercise can be painful at first. You may need to start with as little as five minutes, working toward a goal of twenty or thirty minutes four or more times a week.