A guide to fibromyalgia: symptoms and treatments

Symptoms include pain, muscle stiffness and fatigue

B7MH4Y A woman with neck tension or backache, close-up.  used for fibromyalgia pain

Around 1.7 million people in the UK have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia – a condition which causes widespread pain, muscle stiffness and fatigue. Unfortunately, it's very hard to diagnose and there is no known cure. If you think you may have fibromyalgia, read on for a guide to the symptoms and treatment options available.

See also: Seven things you can do to ease joint pain

See also: Six arthritis-friendly gadgets to make your life easier

What is fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a musculoskeletal pain and fatigue disorder which causes pain and stiffness in muscles and joints. People of all ages can suffer with fibromyalgia, though women are about eight times more likely to be diagnosed with it than men. People who have already been diagnosed with rheumatic disease, or who have a history of the illness in the family, are also at greater risk.

Symptoms of fibromyalgia
The main symptom is widespread pain, which may be experienced throughout the body, or focused in a particular area, such as the upper back, shoulders, neck, or the low back. This can feel like an ache, a burning sensation, throbbing, or a sharp shooting or stabbing pain.

Those with fibromyalgia often describe aching all over, and their muscles may twitch or burn and feel as if they have been overworked. Fibromyalgia can also cause muscles to feel stiff, particularly if you've been in position for a length of time.

Unlike the pain and stiffness caused by exercise or a temporary illness, the pain is likely to be continuous, although it may improve or worsen at different times. Changes in the weather, your stress levels, and how physically active you are can affect whether your symptoms are mild or severe.

Fibromyalgia can cause you to be highly sensitive to pain, and you may find that even the slightest touch is painful. Some people are sensitive to bright lights, odours, noises, smoke or certain foods – which can cause their other fibromyalgia symptoms to flare up.

Fatigue is another common symptom. Some people experience only mild tiredness, but others may feel the kind of exhaustion caused by a flu-like illness. Fatigue can come on rapidly and leave you feeling drained. Because fibromyalgia can affect the quality of your sleep, you may feel extremely tired even after you've seemingly had plenty of rest.

Other symptoms may include depression and anxiety, migraines and headaches, as well as cognitive problems, such as problems concentrating, learning, and remembering things.

Some studies suggest that more than 40% of fibromyalgia patients suffer with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). This common digestive condition causes pain and bloating in the stomach and can lead to constipation or diarrhoea.

People with fibromyalgia may also experience dizziness and clumsiness, feeling too hot or too cold, restless legs syndrome, numbness, dry eyes and mouth, burning or pins and needles in the hands and feet. Women may also experience unusually painful periods.

What causes fibromyalgia?
The cause of fibromyalgia is as yet unknown. Some experts believe that abnormalities in the sleep cycle can lead to the condition, while others think it may be caused by certain brain chemicals that upset pain perception.

For example, studies show that people with fibromyalgia have abnormally low levels of the hormones serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine in their brains, which affects how pain messages are sent by the nerves, as well as things like mood, appetite and sleep. Recent research suggest that an abnormality in the central nervous system could be to blame.

Fibromyalgia doesn't always develop following an obvious trigger, but some people find that they first experience symptoms after an injury, viral infection, giving birth or having an operation. For others, a stressful event, such as the breakup of a relationship or death or a loved one was a trigger.

A diagnosis of fibromyalgia
There's no specific test to diagnose fibromyalgia, which means diagnosis can be difficult and may take some time. Added to that, the symptoms of fibromyalgia can vary and are similar to those of several other conditions.

Your GP will want to investigate a range of other possibilities before diagnosing you with fibromyalgia – these can include chronic fatigue syndrome (ME), rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis (MS), thyroid disease, vitamin deficiency and cancer.

Treatment options
There is no cure for fibromyalgia, but painkillers and muscle relaxants can help to relieve the symptoms. Many people find that low-impact exercises, such as swimming, cycling and yoga help, as can complementary therapies such as acupuncture and massage.

Because sleep has an impact on the severity of symptoms, it's important to get a good night's rest if you can. Avoid caffeine, don't have computers/phones/TVs in the bedroom, and make sure the room is dark and cool (18-20 degrees). You doctor may be able to prescribe medication to help you sleep

Many people with chronic pain suffer with depression and anxiety, and your doctor may prescribe antidepressants, psychotherapy, or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

As fibromyalgia is not widely understood (even by doctors) it can help to talk to others who know what you're going through. You can find a range of support groups via UK Fibromyalgia and Fibromyalgia Action UK.