WHAT IS FIBROMYALGIA?
Fibromyalgia (FM) is a relatively common condition affecting two per cent of Canadians. FM occurs more in women than in men. It is seen most in women older than 40, as the incidence of FM increases with age.
Although researchers initially thought the disease affected muscle tissue, we now know it is due to the impairment of pain processing mechanisms within the central nervous system. The preferred term today is "chronic widespread pain."
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF FIBROMYALGIA?
Pain is the most common complaint of people with fibromyalgia. The pain of FM is widespread and felt throughout the body. Those with it are sensitive to firm pressure applied particularly to soft tissues, such as muscles and tendons. This increased sensitivity to pressure is felt as pain. Pressure that can cause pain may be as gentle as a friendly hug or the weight of a child climbing onto a lap. Being in pain makes it difficult to manage normal activities.
Other symptoms of FM include feeling tired and weak, having disturbed sleep, difficulty with concentration, headaches, abdominal complaints, bladder dysfunction and sometimes excessive sensitivity to sounds, light, smell and medications. Many people with fibromyalgia feel discouraged; this may lead to depression and anxiety. In some cases, symptoms may come and go or they may be aggravated by additional stress or even at times by changes in the weather.
For many people, FM develops gradually and has no known cause. For others, FM may develop due to acute illness, a traumatic incident or a stressful, emotional experience. Researchers are still looking for what triggers FM. Recent studies suggest that pain spreads abnormally in people with FM. It is possible that the nervous system is put into overdrive, causing pain. Nerve cells communicate with each other and the way these messages pass through the body is out of balance in people with FM; for this reason, the brain has difficulty understanding the message. Sometimes, however, pain is caused because the body's natural pain dampening mechanisms are not functioning properly.
HOW IS FIBROMYALGIA DIAGNOSED?
Although there is no test that can provide a specific diagnosis of FM, blood tests, X-rays and other tests may be requested by a physician to rule out some other condition that has similar symptoms.
HOW CAN I MANAGE FIBROMYALGIA?
There is no single treatment that works for everyone. Over time, most people with FM will find the balance of treatments that gives them the best relief. Although a complete resolution of all symptoms is seldom achieved, the aim should be to contain your symptoms as best as possible so that you continue leading an active and enjoyable life.
Your first important step is to become an active participant in your treatment. You are encouraged to develop coping strategies to manage your FM.
While the symptoms of FM may persist over time, there are many steps you can take to help manage this condition:
- Listen to, and respect, what your body is telling you, but always give yourself that little extra push.
- Start an enjoyable exercise program, practice relaxation techniques and good sleeping habits. Take time for yourself and rediscover your interests.
- Try the medications your doctor suggests. Make sure to discuss whether they are working for you.
- Learn more about your condition and share that information with family and friends, so they can understand.
- Keep a diary over several weeks. This can help to keep track of the connection between your FM symptoms and your daily activities, which can help you control your FM.
Non-medication therapies, such as physical activity (walking, low-impact aerobic programs, aquatic programs, using an exercise bike or treadmill), stress management and relaxation techniques, are a very important part of treating FM. While you can perform these activities on your own, it's best that you first ask a health-care professional for guidance.