What's the Link Between Fibromyalgia and Periods?
Living with fibromyalgia is a roller coaster of symptoms. A flare-up could come at any time, and because so few people really understand this chronic condition, you may spend much of your time explaining your condition to your support system. To make matters worse, hormone fluctuations caused by your menstrual cycle can trigger more frequent, acute flare-ups, particularly during your period.
What is fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a musculoskeletal condition causing pain, fatigue and difficulty concentrating (commonly known as brain fog or fibro fog). The condition is more commonly diagnosed in women, although experts aren't sure why that's the case. The cause of this condition is repeated stimulation of the nervous system's pain receptors, causing them to become overreactive to pain or stimuli.
In other words, when someone experiences a traumatic event such as a car accident or major injury, the pain associated with this injury may trigger fibromyalgia. For me, this triggering event happened as a result of an equestrian accident at age 14. The chronic muscle pain caused by a hip flexor tear eventually became fibromyalgia, and I have struggled to cope with my symptoms since.
The stigma associated with fibromyalgia can be frustrating. Fibromyalgia shows no physical symptoms, so it's common for coworkers, bosses and even family members to think you are simply being overly sensitive about your flare-ups. This same stigma was prevalent in the medical community until fibromyalgia became commonly accepted in the 1990s.
Thankfully, education efforts over the last few decades have helped the public to understand the severity of this condition. As more research continues, the medical community is learning more about the impacts of secondary conditions on fibromyalgia, especially the menstrual cycle.
How menstruation can trigger fibromyalgia flare-ups
Fibromyalgia flare-ups can be debilitating, and the symptoms can vary from person to person and flare-up to flare-up. A flare-up can be one extreme symptom or many symptoms. For example, someone can experience extreme memory lapses like forgetting daily tasks, difficulty stringing sentences together or extreme fatigue with widespread, flu-like pain.
Environmental factors such as stress, illness and hormonal fluctuations can cause flare-ups. This can mean when you have a stressful time at work, your fibromyalgia can be triggered and potentially sabotage that big promotion or project.
When someone experiences a traumatic event such as a car accident or major injury, the pain associated with this injury may trigger fibromyalgia.
Hormonal fluctuations caused by your period can also cause a flare-up. These flare-ups often exacerbate the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Depending on your typical symptoms, you may experience more extreme PMS symptoms in tandem with a flare-up. For example, my PMS symptoms involve forgetfulness, mood swings, fatigue, constipation and pelvic pain.
When a flare-up is triggered during PMS, my forgetfulness can become confusion and my mood swings can become more dynamic and extreme—but the worst symptom is fatigue. When my fibromyalgia is under control, I'm just a little tired. However, if I am under stress, my fatigue can become so overpowering I can't get out of bed. When this happens, all I can do is take it easy and let the flare-up pass.
Tips to prevent a period-induced fibromyalgia flare-up
Unfortunately, there is no cure for fibromyalgia, but there are ways to manage the symptoms. With that said, treating flare-ups is difficult. It took me years to get my flare-ups under control. The two best strategies were eliminating stress and practicing self-care.
I first evaluated my life and realized my corporate employment was ruining my health. Over a period of three years, I was able to transition into a less stressful career, which cut my flare-ups in half.
Unfortunately, these flare-ups still happen with my monthly hormonal fluctuations. I've found practicing self-care is the best way to avoid flare-ups completely. Daily meditation and exercise such as yoga, aerobic activities and Pilates can help to induce pain-relieving endorphins and increase natural oxytocin levels, which can prevent chronic pain.
In addition to exercise, changes to your diet can also help. Following an anti-inflammatory diet can help to manage your body's reaction to pain and nerve stimulation that often cause chronic pain symptoms. Eliminating dairy, alcohol and nightshade fruits and vegetables, such as potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants, can help to relieve inflammation. Increasing vitamin D can also prevent flare-ups while treating PMS symptoms.
Managing fibromyalgia: Keep a menstrual diary
Knowing hormonal changes can increase your fibromyalgia symptoms is the first step to managing your flare-ups. Making a symptom diary can help you track your daily symptoms and menstrual cycle. There are even period tracking apps where you can create custom symptoms, such as flare-ups.
After a few months, review these symptoms, so you can see how your menstrual cycle impacts your daily fibromyalgia symptoms. With self-care strategies and preventive choices, you can reduce your flare-ups and maintain an active lifestyle with fibromyalgia.