Fibromyalgia (fi-bro-my-AL-ja) is a chronic * disorder that causes widespread aching stiffness, and fatigue in the muscles and joints.
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What Is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a relatively new term for an old disorder. It means pain in the muscles and joints * . The term fibrositis (fi-bro-SY-tis) was once used to describe the same condition. Three to 6 million Americans are thought to be affected by fibromyalgia. It occurs mostly in women aged 50 and older. Fibromyalgia is found throughout the world, among all ethnic groups. It is only rarely seen in children.
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
No one knows what causes fibromyalgia, but there are several theories. One is that fibromyalgia is caused by injury to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), which sends messages to the muscles. A second theory is that biochemical changes in muscle tissue cause fatigue and loss of strength. A third theory suggests that fibromyalgia may be caused by a virus. Some patients with fibromyalgia have psychological problems, but it is unclear whether there is any relationship between the two.
* chronic (KRON-ik) means long lasting.
* Joints are places in the body where two bones fit together, usually in such a way as to allow motion.
How Do People Know If They Have Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia begins gradually. The main symptom is pain in the muscles and joints. The pain moves around but is most common in the neck, chest, arms, legs, hips, and back. In addition, patients may complain of headaches, tiredness, sleep disorders, digestive disturbances, anxiety, or depression.
Fibromyalgia can be frustrating to diagnose for both the doctor and the patient. The muscles hurt, but they look normal. Blood and x-ray tests are also normal. The symptoms can resemble those of a variety of illnesses, including infections, and the doctor needs to rule out such possibilities. Fibromyalgia also shares similarities with chronic fatigue syndrome. If no other explanation for a patient's symptoms is found, a doctor may diagnose fibromyalgia if the pain keeps coming back, occurs in many different muscles, and has lasted for more than 3 months.
How Is Fibromyalgia Treated?
A doctor who suspects fibromyalgia will reassure the patient that the condition will not harm the muscles. The most effective treatment is a combination of exercise, medication (sometimes including antidepressant medications), physical therapy, and relaxation. Other approaches, such as massage and acupuncture, do not seem to be particularly helpful. There is no known way to prevent the condition.
Living with Fibromyalgia
Fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder, which means that the symptoms may get better or worse but can last for months to years. Many communities have support groups for patients with fibromyalgia.
What Progress Is Being Made in Treating Fibromyalgia?
Because fibromyalgia is a source of serious disability for many people, organizations such as the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases are sponsoring research to help diagnose, treat, and prevent it. For example, researchers are studying how structures of the brain are involved in the painful symptoms of fibromyalgia. They are also using sophisticated imaging technologies to study how the muscles perform.
McIlwain, Harris H., and Debra Fulghum Bruce. The Fibromyalgia Handbook. New York: Owl Books, 1996.
American College of Rheumatology, 1800 Century Place, Suite 250, Atlanta,
Arthritis Foundation, 1330 West Peachtree Street, Atlanta, GA 30309.