Who is affected?
It is estimated that approximately 3-6% of the U.S. population has FM. Although a higher percentage of women are affected, it does strike men, women and children of all ages and races. Because of its debilitating nature, Fibromyalgia has a serious impact on patients' family, friends, and employers, as well as society at large.
How is it
Currently there are no laboratory tests available for diagnosing Fibromyalgia. Doctors must rely on patient histories, self-reported symptoms, a physical examination, and an accurate manual tender point examination that determines the presence of multiple tender points at characteristic locations.
It is estimated that it takes an average of five years for a FM patient to get an accurate diagnosis. Many doctors are still not adequately informed or educated about FM. Laboratory tests often prove inconclusive, and many FM symptoms overlap with the symptoms of other conditions, thus leading to extensive investigative costs and frustration for both the doctor and patient. Another essential point that must be considered is that the presence of other diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, does not rule out a FM diagnosis. Fibromyalgia is not a diagnosis of exclusion and must be diagnosed by its own characteristic features.
To receive a diagnosis of FM, the patient must meet the following diagnostic criteria:
What causes Fibromyalgia?
While the underlying cause or causes of FM still remain a mystery, new research findings continue to bring us closer to understanding the basic mechanisms of Fibromyalgia. Most researchers agree that FM is a disorder of central processing with neuroendocrine/neurotransmitter disregulation. The FM patient experiences pain amplification due to abnormal sensory processing in the central nervous system. An increasing number of scientific studies now show multiple physiological abnormalities in the FM patient, including: increased levels of substance P in the spinal cord, low levels of blood flow to the thalamus region of the brain, HPA axis hypofunction, low levels of serotonin and tryptophan, and abnormalities in cytokine function.
Recent studies show that genetic factors may predispose individuals to FM. For some, the onset of FM is slow; however, in a large percentage of patients the onset is triggered by an illness or injury that causes trauma to the body. These events may act to incite an undetected physiological problem already present.
Exciting new research has also begun in the areas of brain imaging and neurosurgery. Continued work will look at the hypothesis that FM is caused by an interpretative defect in the central nervous system that brings about abnormal pain perception. Medical researchers have just begun to untangle the truths about this life-altering disease.
How is FM treated?
One of the most important factors in improving the symptoms of FM is for the patient to recognize the need for lifestyle adaptation. Most people are resistant to change because it implies adjustment, discomfort and effort. However, in the case of FM, change can bring about recognizable improvement in function and quality of life. Becoming educated about FM gives the patient more potential for improvement.
An empathetic physician who is knowledgeable about the diagnosis and treatment of FM and who will listen to and work with the patient is an important component of treatment. Conventional medical intervention may be only part of a potential treatment program.
Alternative treatments, nutrition, relaxation techniques and exercise play an important role in FM treatment as well. Each patient should, along with their healthcare practitioner, establish a multifaceted and individualized approach that works for them.
Pain Management - Over-the-counter pain medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, may be helpful in relieving pain. Be careful of NSAIDs, which can have dangerous side effects if used long-term. Most conventional physicians may decide to prescribe one of the newer non-narcotic pain relievers (e.g. Tramadol) or low doses of antidepressants (e.g. tricyclic antidepressants, serotonin reuptake inhibitors) or benzodiazepines. Patients must remember that there are many alternatives to this. An important aspect of pain management is a regular program of gentle exercise and stretching, which helps maintain muscle tone and reduces pain and stiffness.
Sleep Management - Improved sleep can be obtained by implementing a healthy sleep regimen, which includes going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, making sure that the sleeping environment is conducive to sleep (i.e. quiet, free from distractions, a comfortable room temperature, a supportive bed), avoiding caffeine, sugar and alcohol before bed, doing some type of light exercise during the day, avoiding eating immediately before bedtime, and practicing relaxation exercises as you fall to sleep. When necessary, there are new sleep medications that can be prescribed, some of which can be especially helpful if the patient's sleep is disturbed by restless legs or periodic limb movement disorder.
Psychological Support - Learning to live with a chronic illness often challenges an individual emotionally. The FM patient needs to develop a program that provides emotional support and increases communication with family and friends. Many communities throughout the United States and abroad have organized Fibromyalgia support groups. These groups often provide important information and have guest speakers who discuss subjects of particular interest to the FM patient. Counseling sessions with a trained professional may help improve communication and understanding about the illness and help to build healthier relationships within the patient's family.
Other Treatments - Complementary therapies can be very beneficial. These include: physical therapy, therapeutic massage, myofascial release therapy, water therapy, light aerobics, acupressure, application of heat or cold, acupuncture, yoga, relaxation exercises, breathing techniques, aromatherapy, cognitive therapy, biofeedback, herbs, nutritional supplements, and osteopathic or chiropractic manipulation.
Better than ever before! The efforts of individuals, support groups, organizations and medical professionals to help improve the quality of life for people with FM are starting to pay off. Better ways to diagnose and treat FM are on the horizon. The symptoms of FM can vary in severity and often wax and wane, but most patients do tend to improve over time. By actively seeking new information, talking to others who have FM, re-evaluating daily priorities, making lifestyle changes, and working hard to keep a hopeful attitude, the FM sufferer can become the FM survivor!