If you or someone in your family has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, you might be wondering about this disease – and about possible causes for it.  This article provides an overview of this condition as well as possible causes for it.  Read on to find out more about this disease which affects around 5.8 million Americans all across the country.

An Overview of Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a condition which affects the muscles and soft tissues and is characterized by widespread, chronic musculoskeletal pain – in fact, its very name comes from two Greek words which mean “muscle pain”. While much needs to still be learned about this disease and it is considered to be related to arthritis, there are some important differences. Fibromyalgia is not an inflammatory process and does not result in damage or destruction of the joints and muscles.  Also, although it is a chronic, long-term condition, it is not progressive or fatal.

Common signs and symptoms of fibromyalgia include musculoskeletal pain which occurs on both sides of the body and both above and below the waist.  The pain should last for at least 3 months and be otherwise unexplained: it can be sharp, aching or throbbing. Pain is only one part of this condition, however: patients can also suffer from difficulty thinking/making decisions (which patients can often call “fibro fog”), severe fatigue even with adequate sleep, numbness or tingling in the face or limbs, morning stiffness, irritability of the bowel and bladder and decreased tolerance for exercise.  Painful menstrual cramps, restless leg syndrome and sensitivities to temperature, noise and light are also common.

Complications stemming from fibromyalgia can be difficult for patients and can include problems at work or school or with family and feelings of depression and anxiety.  These complications can all seriously impact a patient’s quality of life.

Diagnosis of fibromyalgia used to be based upon an 18-point system: a physician would apply pressure to 18 separate points on the patient’s body and diagnose based on patient report of tenderness/pain. Now, diagnosis is based upon patient experience of widespread pain for over 3 months with no other medical explanation. However, doctors will often perform tests to help rule out other possible causes of these symptoms, including a complete blood count, an erythrocyte sedimentation rate and levels of thyroid hormones.

Treatment of fibromyalgia can be challenging depending on its severity.  The FDA was only approved three medications for this disorder: duloxetine, milnacipran and pregabalin. Other common treatments and lifestyle changes to help improve signs and symptoms includes:

  • Analgesics to relieve pain; this could include NSAIDs or narcotics
  • Antidepressants
  • Anti-seizure medications
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Stress control
  • Regular exercise, including Pilates
  • Pacing activities
  • Healthy diet
  • Massage therapy
  • Chiropractic treatment

Potential Causes of Fibromyalgia

It is important for patients to understand that there is still a lot to learn about fibromyalgia as a disease and that there is still a lot to learn about it and that in some instances, there is no clear cause for this disease. However, some factors have been linked to the onset of fibromyalgia, including:

  • While no specific genes have been identified, fibromyalgia is a condition which tends to run in families and researchers believe that there may be a genetic tendency towards this condition that gets passed on from mother to daughter that affects the way the body reacts to stimuli from the environment.
  • Again, while more research needs to be done on this topic, it is believed that, at least for some fibromyalgia patients, infections appear to either trigger or exacerbate this condition. Specific types of infections that have been implicated in fibromyalgia include the flu, pneumonia and the Epstein-Barr virus and to date, it is estimated that this causes around 20% of fibromyalgia cases.
  • Physical or emotional trauma. For some patients, posttraumatic stress disorder, injuries to the brain or spinal cord (especially from motor vehicle accidents) or surgery can all trigger fibromyalgia.
  • Brain abnormalities. Researchers believe that abnormalities of the brain can also cause fibromyalgia: these abnormalities can affect pain receptors in the brain and make patients more sensitive to painful stimuli; low levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin are also believed to be a factor.
  • Hormonal changes. Hormonal changes – especially the low levels of estrogen which occur in the woman’s body during menopause – are also thought to trigger or worsen fibromyalgia symptoms.

As you’ve probably noticed, most of the suspected causes of fibromyalgia – such as genetics or brain abnormalities – cannot be changed.  However, treatment of this condition (while still challenging at times) can also help improve fibromyalgia signs and symptoms – and quality of life for patients. And the good news is that research is underway in laboratories across the country and abroad to learn more about this disease in order to improve treatment even further.