While you may have heard of fibromyalgia, what you may not realize is that it affects more women than breast cancer. In fact, fibromyalgia plagues millions of women worldwide, including such celebrities as Lady Gaga and Sinead O’Conner. A complex disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain as well as fatigue, sleep, memory and mood problems, experts believe that the condition amplifies sensations by affecting the way your brain processes pain signals.
Lady Gaga announced on Twitter last fall that she will open up about living with the painful condition in a forthcoming documentary, “Five Foot Two” (which debuted on Netflix on Sept. 22, 2017):
— Lady Gaga (@ladygaga) September 12, 2017
“In our documentary, the #chronicillness #chronic pain I deal w/ is #Fibromyalgia I wish to help raise awareness & connect people who have it,” she wrote.
So what do you need to know about this debilitating disorder that affects so many?
The Origins Of Fibromyalgia
Many doctors believe the condition is triggered by a significant, stressful physical and/or mental trauma, such as a surgery, infection, divorce, a car accident or sexual assault. When the body perceives these threats, it goes into fight-or-flight mode.
“Normally, the sympathetic nervous system turns on to prepare the body for a stressful situation, tightening the muscles and connective tissue to increase their strength, then shutting off when the threat is gone,” Ginevra Liptan, M.D., author of “The FibroManual: A Complete Fibromyalgia Treatment Guide for You and Your Doctor,” tells Good Housekeeping. However, in the case of fibromyalgia, the brain never gets the “off signal,” and the stress response stays activated.
Who Gets Fibromyalgia?
While the condition does not discriminate, and people from all races, cultures, genders and backgrounds can suffer from fibromyaliga, the disease does disproportionately affect women. In fact, according to the CDC, women are twice as likely as men to have the condition. Other risk factors include age (most people are diagnosed during middle age and are more likely to have fibromyalgia as they get older), having lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, obesity, family history, repetitive injuries, illness such as infection and suffering from traumatic or stressful events.
What Are The Signs and Symptoms?
If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from fibromyalgia, the CDC lists the following common symptoms to look out for:
- Pain and stiffness all over the body
- Fatigue and tiredness
- Depression and anxiety
- Sleep problems
- Problems with thinking, memory and concentration
- Headaches, including migraines
Additional symptoms include:
- Tingling or numbness in hands and feet
- Pain in the face or jaw, including disorders like TMJ
- Digestive problems, such as abdominal pain, bloating, constipation and even irritable bowel syndrome (also known as IBS)
Because fibromyalgia often co-exists with these other common conditions such as migraines, IBS and TMJ, and because it mimics the symptoms of other diseases such as Lyme disease, depression and hypothyroidism, it can often be difficult for doctors to arrive at a proper diagnosis. There is no diagnostic lab test, ultrasound or scan that a doctor can perform to definitively make a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, leaving many patients frustrated and without answers.
“I think it’s misdiagnosed most of the time when symptoms first present,” Todd Sitzman, M.D., and past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, told Health.”Because by definition it’s a diagnosis of exclusion. The physician looks for other sources for their chronic fatigue, for their chronic muscle pain, sleep disturbance and mood disorder before they assign a diagnosis of fibromyalgia.”
If you do arrive at a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, while there is no cure, there are options to manage the disease. It can take some tinkering to find the best treatment strategy, but many patients utilize a combination of antidepressants, pain relievers and anti-seizure drugs as well as lifestyle modifications such as exercise, improved sleep habits and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
Servanne Edlund, who suffers from fibromyalgia, found relief from a nerve-blocking drug and an antidepressant. “I felt better almost immediately — more energy, improved sleep, and less pain,” she told Good Housekeeping. “I started walking as much as two miles every morning. Before medication, I couldn’t get down the stairs.”
For more information on fibromyalgia, visit the National Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Association.