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Fibromyalgia Basics

What is Fibromyalgia?

Fibro cartoon

Invisible, unpredictable, frustrating, and oftentimes torturous. The painful, diffuse symptoms of fibromyalgia have no boundaries. This disease does more than rob you of restful sleep. You wake up each morning feeling as though you have been punched around by the fibromyalgia monster that inhabits every inch of your body. Your muscles are stiff, your brain is dead, and you’re exhausted before the day begins.

Fibromyalgia affects every system in your body, but you don’t have any lab tests to prove your symptoms. You look normal and feel awful; living with fibromyalgia is a constant struggle that others can’t see.

Flu-like Symptoms

Most people with fibromyalgia describe it as having a bad case of the flu that never goes away. Scientifically, there may be some truth to the concept that fibromyalgia is like a chronic viral infection.

When a virus invades the body, the immune cells in your central nervous system go ballistic to protect your brain. In doing so, your neurons start sending pain alarms out to your muscles and other tissues. In addition to the widespread achiness, it causes fatigue, trouble concentrating (brain fog), and insomnia. It’s the very thing that lands people in bed when an infectious agent invades their body

Research shows that these immune cells are on the rampage in people with fibromyalgia. But instead of causing symptoms for only a day or two, these cells are stuck in the “enraged” state in fibromyalgia. So, the perverse symptoms of fibromyalgia are chronic, not temporary like they would be with the flu.

Brain imaging studies document the hyperactivity of these immune cells in fibromyalgia patients. However, blood tests can’t detect this activity because these cells hide out in the central nervous system.

Many fibromyalgia patients are told that there is nothing wrong with them because tests do not reveal a tissue-destroying process. This is insulting in the face of so many symptoms. Yet, no sign of tissue destruction should be viewed with optimism. It may mean that researchers might be able to reverse the processes that cause fibromyalgia.

Rather than being a destructive disease, fibromyalgia impairs the way your brain and spinal cord operate. In turn, this dysfunction spills over into problems with regulating all of your organ systems, such as your digestive tract, your natural stress response mechanisms, and your cardiovascular system, to name a few.

Fibromyalgia is like having a foreign invader inside your body who changes all your control settings so nothing works as it should. Your mind can’t focus, your digestion is fussy, the blood flow to your muscles is impaired, the slightest touch hurts, bright lights and other sensory signals are overwhelming, your coordination is off, and your head constantly pounds. With fibromyalgia, you feel fifty years older … and then some.

Possible Causes

What sets the fibromyalgia wheels in motion? Genetics plays a big role. Research shows that blood relatives of fibromyalgia patients are eight times more likely to develop the condition. Fibromyalgia usually surfaces after a person is exposed to a triggering event, such as an infection, injury, disease, prolonged stress, or trauma. All of these events can activate the immune cells in the nervous system and impair the body’s ability to fight pain. But how this leads to fibromyalgia is unclear.

Views on what causes fibromyalgia are constantly changing. Initially it was thought to be due to muscle inflammation, but research on the muscles quickly dispelled this myth. Next, fibromyalgia was believed to be a disease within the central nervous system. While this is still partly true, injecting mice with serum and other fluids from fibromyalgia patients causes a rapid onset of pain. This shows that cells outside the nervous system are also contributing to the disease. 

Fibromyalgia is no longer viewed as a dysfunction that solely resides in the central nervous system. Instead, the processes in your tissues collude with the control centers in your brain and spinal cord to cause fibromyalgia. And despite its impact on all your body systems, fibromyalgia lurks in the shadows, undetectable by standard laboratory tests.

Fibro cartoon

Every year, researchers learn more about what causes the symptoms of fibromyalgia. And with each new discovery, the complexity of the condition continues to grow. The hope is that advances in research will lead to better treatments. In fact, the idea that fibromyalgia can be transferred from patients to mice is a game-changer, and with additional research funding, more effective therapies could be around the corner.

Diagnostic Challenges

In lieu of a blood test, fibromyalgia is diagnosed by the presence of widespread pain. Although the medical community uses this method to identify people with fibromyalgia, patients deserve more. Lab markers lend credibility to diseases, but research dollars are needed to develop them. Despite the 25 percent disability rate, government funding for studies on this disease is only 15 cents per patient.

So, what is fibromyalgia? It affects every system in the body to cause widespread pain and profound fatigue, but there is no lab test to prove it exists. The symptoms of fibromyalgia are similar to a bad flu. They are mind-boggling and difficult to manage. Patients face a credibility dilemma in the doctor’s office, as well as with their family and friends. Research progress is being made on fibromyalgia, but it is seriously hampered by inadequate funding.

Fibromyalgia Quick Facts

  • Affects 3 to 5 percent of the general population
  • Occurs in people of all ages, including children
  • Men develop fibromyalgia too, although more women are diagnosed with it
  • Symptoms are chronic but may fluctuate throughout the day
  • Roughly one-quarter of fibromyalgia patients are work-disabled
  • Three drugs are FDA-approved for fibromyalgia, but are not endorsed in Europe because of low efficacy and high side effects