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Fibromyalgia: What is it? How is it Diagnosed? And 8 Ways You Can Reduce Symptoms

Life can come with occasional body aches and pains. Most of the time, these body aches and pains are caused by a clear, apparent reason such as injuries, arthritis, sickness, etc. Yet, for about 4 million US adults (2% of the population), unclear, incurable body aches and pains have become their standard way of living. These types of aches and pains can also come along with other symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, GI distress, emotional health issues, and/or cognitive issues, like “brain fog”. If this sounds familiar to you, you may have or have already been diagnosed with something known as fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia is a disorder mainly characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain. It can also be accompanied by other life-altering health and wellness issues. Frustratingly, doctors and researchers still are not sure what causes fibromyalgia but, many believe that it has something to do with how your brain and spinal cord process painful and nonpainful signals from your nerves causing sensations to be amplified. For example, someone without fibromyalgia might get bumped accidentally while walking down the street by another pedestrian. This minor inconvenience will cause them little to no pain. Someone with fibromyalgia experiences the same inconvenience, yet their pain level might be moderate to severe. According to the CDC, this is known as abnormal pain perception processing.

Although there is still so much that is unclear about fibromyalgia, here are some of the facts that we do know:

  • Symptoms typically begin after an event, such as physical/emotional trauma, surgery, infection, or significant psychological stress. However, genetics may play a role. Still, in other cases, symptoms gradually accumulate over time with no single triggering event or known genetic predisposition.

  • Women are more likely to develop fibromyalgia than men. Women are at a higher risk of developing fibromyalgia once they reach the ages of 40-55 years old.

  • Many people who have fibromyalgia also have tension headaches, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, and depression.

  • There is no cure for fibromyalgia however, a variety of medications can help control symptoms. Exercise, relaxation, and appropriate stress-coping techniques may also be helpful.

  • The pain may come and go throughout your life. You will also experience “good days” and “bad days” in regards to fibromyalgia symptoms.

Since fibromyalgia is known for causing widespread, chronic pain it’s no surprise that this disorder can be devasting to your quality of life. Many people diagnosed with fibromyalgia struggle to work, exercise, and complete everyday tasks that are often taken for granted. Other complications might include:

  • Increased hospital visits

  • Increased rates of major depression.

  • Increased death rates from suicide and injuries.

  • Increased rates of other rheumatic conditions- such as arthritis and lupus.

Fibromyalgia can also be tricky to diagnose. Before the recommendations changed in 2010, doctors used to identify specific areas of the body, known as tender points, that felt more sensitive to fibromyalgia patients. These points are specific, small (no larger than a penny) areas on your body, often near joints (not on) that can cause a significant amount of pain when pushed if you have fibromyalgia. Doctors would apply pressure on these points and if 11 out of the 18 points caused pain, then a person most likely had the disorder. According to Diana Kelly Levey, author of “Fibromyalgia Tender Points: What and Where Are They?”, the 18 tender points for fibromyalgia include:

  • Lower neck in front

  • Edge of upper breast

  • Arm near the elbow

  • Knee

  • Base of the skull in the back of the head

  • Hip bone

  • Upper outer buttock

  • Back of the neck

  • Back of the shoulders

Since 2010, The American College of Rheumatology has recommended not using the 18 tender point method to diagnose fibromyalgia. Instead, fibromyalgia is typically diagnosed by talking with a doctor (usually a rheumatologist) about your symptoms and their prevalence and severity. Doctors will also spend time ruling out the possibility of other health issues, such as arthritis, lupus, etc.

As devasting as fibromyalgia may sound, there are many courses of effective treatment. First, if you suspect that you have fibromyalgia it’s important to discuss your symptoms with your doctor immediately. Just like with any other disorder, fibromyalgia requires a comprehensive treatment plan to ensure a high quality of life can be maintained. If you have already been diagnosed with fibromyalgia then it is imperative that you continue meeting with your rheumatologist regularly. Besides regular doctor visits, Fibromyalgia is usually treated with a combination of things. Combining different strategies to ease fibromyalgia symptoms can mean the difference between controlling your symptoms and letting them control you. Medication alone is often not enough, you must also learn effective self-care strategies, stress-coping techniques, and even types of appropriate exercise.

Here are 8 more ways that may help you minimize fibromyalgia symptoms and experience a higher quality of life with a fibromyalgia diagnosis:

  1. Listen to your body. Fighting through fatigue and serious pain because you think that is the “right” thing to do, often ends up being the worse thing you could do for your body. Fatigue especially needs close attention paid to it. That is your body’s way of saying that it needs rest. Pushing yourself too far can worsen your fibromyalgia symptoms and make you feel worse.

  2. Don’t always put yourself last. This could mean regularly attending doctor’s appointments, listening to your body, eating/drinking healthfully, and getting regular exercise in lieu of putting other people’s needs, wants, or events before yours. It’s difficult to take care of others if you haven’t taken care of yourself first, especially with fibromyalgia.

  3. Avoid falling into the victim trap. With fibromyalgia, It can be easy to underestimate your capabilities, avoid activities, and develop an “I-can’t-do-anything” attitude. Instead, on your energetic, lower symptom days do what you can for as long as you can. When fatigue starts to settle in, press the pause button.

  4. Don’t overwork yourself. On days when you’re feeling less symptomatic, it can be easy to start doing too much in order to make up for “lost time”. This attitude can cause a fibromyalgia flare-up. Instead, choose one or two tasks that you could not do during a recent fibromyalgia “off day”.

  5. Get up and move! Chronic pain can make it difficult to move around and exercise. But, regular physical activity, especially activities like gentle yoga and walking, can prevent fibromyalgia flare-ups. Light to moderate exercise will not worsen your pain, and may even improve your fibromyalgia symptoms, according to a study published by the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

  6. Work your brain like you would work your body. Crosswords, Sudoku, reading a book, drawing, playing brain games on your smartphone- all of these activities will help stimulate your mind when you can’t easily stimulate your body. They will also help take your mind off of your fibromyalgia pain and any other symptoms you might be experiencing.

  7. Develop healthy sleep habits. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day and avoid electronics at least 30 minutes before bed (the blue light can make it difficult for your mind and body to relax). Getting plenty of shuteye helps your body recover, physically and mentally from living with fibromyalgia.

  8. Look in front of you and around you, not behind you. Instead of focusing your energy on your diagnosis and the potential emotions that might come with that (bitterness, sadness, frustration, etc.). Focus instead on what you can do to improve every new day of your life and stay fully present by taking it one moment at a time.

If you have, or suspect you have, fibromyalgia, life can often be filled with aches and pains. It can also be difficult emotionally if you’re dealing with anxiety or depression. This is why it’s so important to appropriately take care of yourself with fibromyalgia. There is no clear reason why, there is no cure, but there is still your life- and you can live it to your fullest potential with fibromyalgia!

If you would like help in developing a fibromyalgia-safe exercise plan, in addition to effective goal-planning and habit-changing techniques based around your diagnosis, then please reach out to the St. Andrew’s Family Fitness Plus’s Fitness Department where one of our certified Personal Trainers will work with you to create a customized wellness plan! Simply fill out the Starting Point Questionnaire, or give us a call at 843-763-3850.

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