Fibromyalgia: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

At a glance:

  • Fibromyalgia is a condition that leads to widespread pain and muscle stiffness
  • It is a chronic condition, meaning it can’t be cured
  • The condition affects around 2% - 5% of the population 
  • Around 90% of people living with fibromyalgia are young to middle aged women
  • The pain experienced by people living with fibromyalgia is due to changes in the way they experience sensory input rather than inflammation or damage to the painful areas
  • There is no readily known cause but there are both genetic and environmental factors can increase the chances of someone developing fibromyalgia 
  • While there is no cure for fibromyalgia, the symptoms can be treated and controlled with a combination of medication, therapy and related treatments

What is Fibromyalgia?

FIbromyalgia is the name given to a variety of conditions that lead to generalised muscle stiffness and chronic pain around the body, as well as increased sensitivity to touch or pressure. Pain is often accompanied by broken, unsatisfying sleep, extreme fatigue, and problems with concentration and memory.

The condition is quite common, affecting between 2% and 5% of the population of the developed world , with young and middle aged women making up the vast majority of sufferers. Around 90% of people living with fibromyalgia are women, and the condition is typically diagnosed in early middle age.

The pain caused by fibromyalgia is non-inflammatory, meaning there is no associated swelling or damage to the painful areas. This is due to the fact that fibromyalgia is felt to be a condition affecting the way people process sensory input. 

The condition affects the brain and nervous system rather than the bones and muscles, with sufferers experiencing pain that originates from the brain rather than the body part experiencing the sensation. As such, fibromyalgia is considered part of a group of “central sensitivity syndromes”, including chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and multiple chemical sensitivity.   

What Causes Fibromyalgia?

Currently the exact cause of fibromyalgia is unknown, but there appear to be both genetic and environmental links. Although the cause may not be known, there are a number of factors that appear to increase the chance of someone developing the condition, including:

  • Autoimmune conditions such as lupus, ankylosing spondylitis, osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Other central sensitivity syndromes such as chronic fatigue syndrome or IBS
  • Other, previously diagnosed pain syndromes
  • A family history of fibromyalgia
  • Substance abuse
  • Viral illnesses or infections
  • Ongoing pain caused by injury or trauma
  • Depression or prolonged emotional stress

These contributing factors can lead to the development of changes in the central nervous system, altering the way someone perceives different sensory input. Stimulus that may be painful to someone with fibromyalgia won’t be in someone without the condition. This does not does not imply that their perceived pain isn’t real.

A 2012 study of 150 fibromyalgia patients in Australian hospitals showed that the vast majority could identify a triggering event or factor for the development of their condition. 

Although the condition is chronic and cannot be cured, most people with the condition experience times of remission as well as flare ups during which time the pain becomes a good deal more intense. These flares can be triggered by a number of different factors, including:

  • Changes in the weather or temperature (much like the way many people living with arthritis can feel weather changes in their affected joints)
  • Altered treatment or medication for dealing with fibromyalgia or another condition
  • Changes in hormones due to natural cycles, changes in medication or pregnancy
  • Exhaustion or overexertion
  • Emotional or mental stress
  • Viral or bacterial infections
  • Injury

In addition to pain and muscle stiffness, people living with fibromyalgia may experience a number of related symptoms, including:

  • General or localised muscle stiffness and musculoskeletal pain
  • An increased sensitivity to touch in general with some points being highly sensitive and painful
  • A decreased pain threshold and heightened sensitivity to pain
  • Increased sensitivity to sensory input, including heat and cold, light, sound and smell.
  • Sleeping problems, with broken and unsatisfying sleep being common
  • Extreme tiredness and fatigue
  • Cognitive disturbances, especially pertaining to memory and concentration
  • High distress levels
  • Headaches
  • Numbness or tingling in the extremities
  • Other central sensitivity syndromes such as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)
  • Women with fibromyalgia are more likely to experience painful periods

Due to the fact that the symptoms of fibromyalgia are common to a number of other conditions, it can be difficult to diagnose, potentially making any diagnosis of fibromyalgia both lengthy and frustrating. 

There are no tests that can diagnose fibromyalgia, but a doctor may order blood tests, x-rays and other scans to rule out other causes of the pain experienced. 

Typically your doctor will look at how widespread the pain is and if it has been occurring for more than three months. It is also important to examine your levels of fatigue and problems sleeping, and any cognitive issues.

If you’re experiencing unexplained pain and tenderness, muscle stiffness, or need help managing the pain of fibromyalgia, talk to your doctor. The easiest and fastest way to book an appointment with a doctor online is with MyHealth1st.

Treatment For and Living With Fibromyalgia

There is no cure for fibromyalgia, but the symptoms can be treated and controlled through lifestyle measures, medication and other associated therapies. These fibromyalgia treatments, therapies and lifestyle measures commonly include a mixture of the following: 

Understanding fibromyalgia - learning about the condition and identifying the factors that cause flares can aid both in controlling pain and helping your doctor or specialist form a plan to deal with the condition.

Pain management techniques - not all techniques will work for everyone, but many people living with fibromyalgia find a combination of light exercise or stretching and heat or cold packs may reduce pain.

Improving sleep - lack of sleep can be an aggravating factor for flares but also many people living with fibromyalgia experience sleep issues. Finding ways to improve sleep can reduce the instances of flares as well as improve overall symptoms.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) - CBT is a therapy used by psychologists to challenge and reshape unhelpful modes of thinking. There is evidence that CBT can aid in improving both pain management and the general outlook of people living with fibromyalgia.

Stress management, relaxation techniques and mindfulness - finding methods to reduce stress can reduce the incidences of flares. Mindfulness training and therapy can help people living with fibromyalgia break negative thought patterns, helping establish better coping mechanisms, improving overall quality of life. Research also indicates that mindfulness therapies can also aid in pain management and reducing instances of associated depression. 

Exercise - regular exercise may help in pain management and relief, reducing fatigue and improving sleep quality. There is no “one size fits all exercise for fibromyalgia, with each person living with the condition having to find the type of exercise that works for them. A physiotherapist or exercise physiologist can help in developing an exercise program right for you. 

Eat a balanced diet - maintaining a healthy, nutritious diet can help maintain energy levels, a healthy weight and a general feeling of wellbeing. In some people with fibromyalgia, certain foods or additives can trigger flares, so balancing a diet around avoiding those trigger factors can be a vital step in controlling the condition.

Medication - analgesic pain relievers like paracetamol and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications may be prescribed for short or long term pain relief. Anti-epileptic medications might be used for pain relief and to help improve sleep quality. Antidepressant medications may also be prescribed for mental anguish, and in small doses can also help promote better sleep. These drugs may also work as pain modulators.


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