What Does Fibromyalgia Look Like?
Fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) is a chronic pain disorder with far-reaching full-body symptoms. It is largely misunderstood by the public and by some doctors. Women are reportedly twice as likely to be diagnosed than men.
Plus, the condition progresses non-linearly, has no cure and may have psychosomatic elements—FMS can be a response to trauma and/or assault. Don't let a lack of knowledge keep you from receiving a diagnosis and treatment.
Fibromyalgia is a persistent illness that causes pain and discomfort throughout the body. Patients' discomfort may be connected to fatigue, sleep issues, difficulty focusing, headaches, depression and anxiety. Another symptom of fibromyalgia is tenderness in the joints, muscles, tendons and other soft tissues.
"Pain often comes from inflammation, so it is important to focus on lowering inflammation in an attempt at pain relief," said Jeff Gladd, M.D., the founder of GladdMD Integrative Medicine in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
There's also an impact on mental health.
"Fibro fog—also known as fibromyalgia fog or brain fog—is a term used to describe the cognitive symptoms that can occur in people with fibromyalgia syndrome, such as difficulty with memory, concentration and decision-making," said Bill McKenna, the founder of CognoMovement in San Diego.
Diagnosis and tests
"If severe fatigue or widespread pain persists more than three months and is associated with insomnia and brain fog, they likely have fibromyalgia," said Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D. a board-certified internist in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. "No testing is needed to diagnose fibromyalgia. Simply the presence of fatigue, insomnia, brain fog and widespread pain.
"Once the diagnosis is made, however, extensive testing is needed to determine which factors are contributing to the energy crisis that causes fibromyalgia. These tests are used to create an effective treatment protocol and must be tailored to each individual. This tells us whether they have the needed criteria to diagnose CFS and/or fibromyalgia. Unfortunately, many physicians are not familiar with these conditions or the diagnoses."
Fibromyalgia syndrome and chronic fatigue syndrome often co-exist but the two are differentiated, since the physical pain often takes center stage as the most hindering symptom in FMS.
When to seek help and who to see
People seeking medical care in the face of chronic pain need to be advocates for themselves.
"Unfortunately, this is a very complex illness and over 85 percent of people who go to a physician are given the wrong diagnoses," he said. "They're told they are depressed, anxious or they work too hard."
Chronic pain and mental fog can be a distraction and often have you doubting your own condition. A recommended solution is to keep a written log of your symptoms, triggers and possible solutions you've found that bring you relief. Having full access to your diary of symptoms can be a help to both you and the medical professional helping you.
As there's no specific test to confirm the condition, any doctor you see who you feel acknowledges and hears you can be a good fit. However, focusing on the lifestyle adjustments that can be made to relieve symptoms can offer clues about who you to consult.
"For direct pain relief, applying a topical analgesic cream or gel to tender points can help offer some temporary pain relief," Gladd said. "Massage and acupuncture may also be an effective therapeutic option for individuals with fibromyalgia."
A licensed massage therapist (LMT) may be worth researching. Another route to consider might be traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which specializes in acupuncture, diet, herbal therapy, massage, meditation and physical exercise.
Diet as fibromyalgia treatment
"A whole-foods diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and anti-inflammatory spices like ginger and turmeric will be helpful," Gladd said. "Some research shows that specific diets, such as a low-calorie diet, low-FODMAP diet and a raw vegetarian diet, may help reduce markers of inflammation, improve sleep and reduce anxiety and depression. However, these diets can be highly restrictive and may not be appropriate for everyone. Supplementation should be considered."
The FODMAP diet is a temporary and restrictive regimen intended to reduce certain carbohydrates in order to relieve gastrointestinal distress. It is most often prescribed to people with IBS or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and relies on eliminating and later re-introducing potentially problematic foods.
However, regaining health in the wake of fibromyalgia isn't all about what foods you can't eat. Gladd's advice indicates anti-inflammatory spices and supplements go hand-in-hand.
Vegetation such as ginger, garlic, turmeric and cinnamon all generally operate by counterbalancing the body's immune response, which manifests as inflammation. They do this using chemicals they have developed over thousands of years to prevent illness or deter predators. Very simply, you're eating the immune system of this vegetation and it happens to make your food taste better.
In the case of adding supplements to your diet, these should always be taken on the approval of a medical professional, even when supplements are natural products you can pick up from a local grocery store. They can interact poorly with other medications.
What happens if FMS goes undiagnosed?
Teitelbaum explained the reality of unchecked chronic pain with his own experience.
"Severe debilitation [results] with people often being house- or bed-bound," he said. "Also, anxiety and depression are caused by not knowing what their illness is and whether they can recover. I had post-viral fibromyalgia in 1975. It knocked me clear out of medical school and left me homeless for much of a year."
A promising young medical student rendered homeless is dramatic, but the reality of chronic pain and its emotional ramifications can be just that. And more. If you suspect you or a loved one has fibromyalgia syndrome, do not hesitate to seek medical help.