The Connection Between Mood Disorders and Fibromyalgia
Fibromyalgia is characterized by widespread pain, fatigue, brain fog and mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression. These are all symptoms that can lead physicians to misdiagnose a patient's condition or attribute their suffering to mental health problems alone.
However, fibromyalgia is a real disorder that impacts more than 4 million Americans, nearly 2 percent of the adult population. To make matters worse, it often presents alongside other chronic conditions, and its severe impacts on mood, along with other factors, have led many physicians to reclassify fibromyalgia as a neurological condition.
Fibromyalgia and chronic pain
The widespread pain of fibromyalgia is debilitating and unpredictable. For many people with the condition, having a pain-free day can be rare, whereas others can be mostly pain-free with periodic, severe flare-ups. I was officially diagnosed with fibromyalgia 14 years ago, and I've learned a lot of strategies for coping with my symptoms along the way.
One of the most important aspects of treating fibromyalgia is to focus on your daily lifestyle, including diet and exercise. I've found a clear connection between my diet and my overall well-being. When I'm making smarter health decisions, I have fewer fibromyalgia flare-ups, and when I overindulge in unhealthy foods, my symptoms return.
Researchers believe a variety of factors contribute to the presence of anxiety and depression in chronic pain sufferers.
What I've learned is supported by many experts, including Lynn Panton, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at Florida State University, who recommends using moderation and smart sense, especially when it comes to exercise.
"When [our patients] have an active flare-up, we back off on the exercise," Panton said. "We find that when our women feel good, they want to do more so it can be hard to hold them back, but we do. If the women do too much when they feel good, they're hurting for days afterward. So low intensity and slow progression is the key."
Finding the balance between not overindulging without overcorrecting is a matter of trial and error. Unfortunately, the secondary impacts, such as headaches, brain fog and mood disturbances, are much harder to manage.
The impact on mood
The hardest part of dealing with these secondary complications is that many people just don't understand how it affects mood. With many chronic conditions, especially fibromyalgia, you can do everything right and still suffer a flare-up. A chronic state of pain and fatigue can undoubtedly be wearing, which often leads to added symptoms of depression and anxiety on top of the debilitating effects of the disease.
This is not a unique phenomenon. Many people with fibromyalgia and other chronic conditions experience a higher risk of mood disturbances, such as anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. While the exact causes are unknown, many researchers believe these mood disturbances are caused by changes in the central nervous system as a result of nerve hypersensitivity caused by chronic pain.
Essentially, when you have a chronic condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diabetes, endometriosis or fibromyalgia, your body becomes conditioned to pain. Over time, as your body continues to register this pain and inflammation without it going away, your nervous system essentially turns up the volume to remind you of what you're feeling. The nervous system, unfortunately, can't tell the difference between the pain in one area over another, so any pain you experience becomes magnified, and may become interconnected over time.
Many experts feel this is part of the reason why fibromyalgia is often diagnosed in patients with other chronic pain conditions. In other words, the pain of endometriosis may be so severe that it triggers fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia is a neurological condition
There have been breakthroughs in managing fibromyalgia, including treating it as a neurological condition, which has helped physicians realize that quieting the central nervous system can relieve pain. This has led to the use of anti-seizure medication to treat the pain caused by fibromyalgia.
Some science on the subject indicates that mindfulness meditation can help attenuate the pain from fibromyalgia by enhancing the brain's ability to manage emotions through cognitive flexibility.
As other research continues, a clear connection between mood disorders and chronic conditions continues to appear. Researchers believe a variety of factors contribute to the presence of anxiety and depression in chronic pain sufferers. It's believed the changes in nerve responses can induce anxiety and depression in patients with fibromyalgia.
Living with unpredictable pain and flare-ups requires support from doctors and loved ones, but with so little understanding of fibromyalgia, it's understandable to feel like you're on your own. Some may be lucky enough to have a partner or family to lean on, but many don't.
For times like this, Nicole Hemmenway, CEO of the U.S. Pain Foundation, recommends joining a support group. Even if you have a support system at home, there is something powerful in sharing our experiences with others who understand. Whether it's utilizing one of the many support groups available through U.S. Pain Foundation or seeking out support on social media, there are millions of people living with chronic conditions who will be happy to share their experiences or offer an empathetic ear. No matter your circumstances, there's no need to feel alone or suffer in silence.