Understanding Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia (FM) is a complex, often misunderstood illness. Its symptoms are chronic pain, sleep problems, and fatigue.

There’s no known cure for the condition, but symptoms can be eased through lifestyle changes and possibly medication.

“Because this condition affects different people in different ways, getting proper treatment requires finding a doctor willing to work through the trial and error of finding effective remedies,” says Patrick Wood, M.D. He's assistant professor of family medicine at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, and director of its Fibromyalgia Care Clinic.

The puzzle

FM is difficult to diagnose because there aren’t specific tests for it. Instead, doctors rely on symptoms and a physical examination. One of the main symptoms is widespread, aching pain. A person with FM also has very tender spots in at least 11 or 18 areas of the body, says Dr. Wood.

Most people with FM also have some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Ongoing tiredness that interferes with daily activities

  • Sleep problems that prevent restful sleep

  • Increased awareness of odors, noises, bright lights, and touch

Other symptoms may include irritable bowel syndrome, numbness and tingling, headaches, restless legs syndrome, memory problems, anxiety, and depression.

Ideas for self-care

Some people with the condition gain relief by taking pain relievers, sleep medication, or drugs used for anxiety or depression. Many patients, however, find a combination of the following steps can prevent their symptoms from acting up and provide relief when they do:

  • Get enough sleep. “Because fatigue is one of the main characteristics of fibromyalgia, getting sufficient sleep is essential,” says Dr. Wood.

  • Manage stress. Although stress doesn’t cause fibromyalgia, it can make symptoms much worse, says Dr. Wood. Stress-management techniques, such as deep-breathing exercises or meditation, may help.

  • Exercise regularly. Many people with fibromyalgia find that gentle exercise and stretching help maintain muscle tone and reduce pain.

  • Try complementary therapies. Consider massage, acupuncture, heat or cold, yoga, cognitive therapy, and biofeedback.

“Many people with fibromyalgia improve over time,” says Dr. Wood.

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