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Last Updated November 2023 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Beth Oller, MD

What is fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a syndrome that causes muscle pain and general fatigue. People who have fibromyalgia often have a heightened sensitivity to pain or experience chronic pain. This means it lasts a long time. Areas called “tender points” may be especially painful when pressure is put on them. Common tender points are the back of the head, the elbows, the shoulders, the knees, the hip joints, and around the neck.

Fibromyalgia is most common among people between 35 and 60 years of age. Women are more likely than men to have it.

Fibromyalgia is a condition that is often misunderstood. But your symptoms aren’t imagined. Scientific research has shown that fibromyalgia is a real syndrome that causes real pain. Don’t let anyone discourage you from getting a diagnosis and treatment for your symptoms.

Symptoms of fibromyalgia

Symptoms of fibromyalgia can include the following:

  • Increased sensitivity to pain
  • A deep ache or a burning pain that gets worse because of activity, stress, weather changes, or other factors
  • Muscle stiffness or spasms
  • Pain that moves around your body
  • Feelings of numbness or tingling in your hands, arms, or legs
  • Feeling very tired or fatigued (out of energy), even when you get enough sleep
  • Trouble sleeping

People who have fibromyalgia often also have one or more of the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Increased sensitivity to odors, bright lights, loud noises, or medicines
  • Headaches, migraines, or jaw pain
  • Dry eyes or mouth
  • Dizziness and problems with balance
  • Problems with memory or concentration (sometimes called the “fibro fog”)
  • Painful menstrual periods

Why do I feel depressed?

Depression or anxiety may occur as a result of your constant pain and fatigue, or the frustration you feel with the condition. It is also possible that the same chemical imbalances in the brain that cause mood changes also contribute to fibromyalgia.

Does fibromyalgia cause permanent damage?

No. Although fibromyalgia causes symptoms that can be very painful and uncomfortable, your muscles and organs are not being damaged. This condition is not life-threatening. However, it is ongoing. Although there is no cure, there are many things you can do to feel better.

What causes fibromyalgia?

Doctors are not sure what causes fibromyalgia. This syndrome might be hereditary, which means it runs in families. You may have family members with similar symptoms.

There is a weak association between fibromyalgia and other life events, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These include:

  • Illness or other diseases
  • Stressful or traumatic events, such as car accidents
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Repetitive injuries
  • Obesity
  • Lupus
  • Rheumatoid arthritis

How is fibromyalgia diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask about your personal and family medical histories. Be sure to tell them whether any members of your immediate family have ever had similar symptoms or have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Your doctor will also need to know what medicines, vitamins, or supplements you are taking.

They will ask about your symptoms and how long you have had them. It’s very important to give your doctor a clear, detailed description of your symptoms. Before going to your appointment, write down a complete list of the problems you’ve been having. Be sure to describe exactly what type of pain you have (for example, whether the pain is dull or sharp) and where you have been feeling pain. Tell your doctor whether your pain comes and goes, and what makes you feel better or worse.

If you have had any trouble sleeping or are fatigued, tell your doctor how long you have had this problem. Your doctor may ask whether you have been feeling anxious or depressed since your symptoms began.

Your doctor will also perform a physical exam. This may include applying pressure to the tender points on your body. Your doctor may run blood tests to rule out any other conditions with symptoms similar to fibromyalgia. Your doctor will also want to be sure that there isn’t anything else causing your pain.

Is it hard to diagnose fibromyalgia?

Unfortunately, it can take years for some people who have fibromyalgia to get a correct diagnosis. This can happen for many reasons. The main symptoms of fibromyalgia are pain and fatigue. These are also common symptoms of many other health problems, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, hypothyroidism, and arthritis.

Currently, there is no laboratory test or X-ray that can diagnose the condition.

It may take some time for your doctor to understand all of your symptoms and rule out other health problems so he or she can make an accurate diagnosis. As part of this process, your family doctor may consult with a rheumatologist. This type of doctor specializes in pain in the joints and soft tissue.

Can fibromyalgia be prevented or avoided?

You cannot prevent fibromyalgia because no one is sure what causes it.

Fibromyalgia treatment

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition. This means that it affects you over a long period of time—possibly your entire life. There will be times when your fibromyalgia may “flare up” and your symptoms will be worse. Other times, you will feel much better. The good news is that your symptoms can be managed.

It’s important to have a health care team that understands fibromyalgia and has experience treating it. Your team will probably include your family doctor, a rheumatologist, and a physical therapist. Other health care professionals may help you manage other symptoms, such as mood or sleep problems. However, the most important member of your health care team is you. The more active you are in your care, the better you will feel.

What medicines might my doctor recommend for my symptoms?

Several medicines can help reduce the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Many of these medicines are taken before bedtime and help reduce pain and improve sleep.

Your doctor may recommend an anti-depressant, such as duloxetine or milnacipran. Anti-seizure medicines, such as preglabin or gabapentin, may also be effective in managing your pain. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (which include ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen) are not usually effective in treating fibromyalgia when taken alone.

Living with fibromyalgia

There isn’t currently a cure for fibromyalgia. Your care will focus on helping you minimize the impact of the condition on your life and treating your symptoms. Your doctor can prescribe medicine to help with your pain, but there are other things you will need to do to ease your symptoms. This is called “self-management.”

Self-management means that you take responsibility for doing what it takes to manage fibromyalgia effectively. It’s important for you to be responsible for your health. The treatment recommendations your doctor makes won’t do any good unless you follow them. They can’t make decisions for you or make you change your behavior. Only you can do these things.

In self-management, you and your health care team are partners in care. Your health care team can provide valuable advice and information to help you deal with fibromyalgia. However, there isn’t one treatment plan that works best for every person who has fibromyalgia. You’ll have to work with your care team to create a plan that’s right for you and the quality of life you desire. After all, nobody knows more than you do about your feelings, your actions, and how your symptoms affect you.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do you know that fibromyalgia is causing my symptoms?
  • What could have caused my fibromyalgia?
  • Will I need to take medicines? Will they interact with other medicines I take?
  • Will alternative therapies (massage, acupuncture, yoga, etc.) help relieve my symptoms?
  • What should I do if my symptoms don’t respond to treatment or get worse?
  • How do I talk to people about my condition? How do I explain that my pain is real?
  • Are there any local support groups for people who have fibromyalgia?
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